Wednesday, June 22, 2011

I'm Not Your Pal, Buddy

I woke up in a hotel room a week or so ago to find out that three transactions totaling $1000 had been made from my PayPal account to random individuals. I have no idea how it happened, it's not like I've been opening dodgy websites or responding to emails from Nigerian princes, but happen it did. As near as I can tell the transactions were all to buy MMO related equipment/accounts/whatever, which is a particularly petty thing to have money stolen for. I raised the transactions as disputes with PayPal and then spent a long morning logging into every account I could remember and changing the passwords to be unique and stronger. I expect this to come back and bite me next time I visit said sites, but at the time it seemed a reasonable response.

I could still log into my account, which was nice, and PayPal were very quick to limit my account and reverse the transactions. Afterwards they asked for my feedback on their response, which I duly gave. Then they sent me a survey asking, among other things, whether I'd recommend PayPal to a friend. No. No I would not. I couldn't have asked for a better response, but at the same time I did have $1000 stolen.

This morning I received an email from one of the recipients of these fraudulent transactions who was mildly displeased, to say the least, that I had reversed the transaction. As far as he was concerned I had reneged on a deal and behaved reprehensibly. He then proceeded to threaten to lodge a dispute with PayPal, etc, etc. Most interesting was that he said he had email and chat logs of the transaction (hopefully that's not an indication that my email account has been compromised because that would be an incredible inconvenience). Getting involved in an email conversation with someone who thought I was a con artist/thief didn't seem like a good idea, so I told him I thought lodging the dispute was a good idea so we could deal through PayPal, and expressed my regret that he was unfortunate enough to get involved in a situation where he was not to blame.

Getting my money stolen was a little disturbing and quite annoying, and it certainly makes me consider what I'm going to do with my PayPal account in the future, but the most frustrating thing about the whole situation is that somebody out there thinks I'm a thief.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Looooong Weekend

It was a simple plan. Go to Perth to visit my brother over the long weekend, catch a game of football while there, go home. Hell, it's barely even a plan. I plan catching up with friends for lunch with more precision. But like any plan, it did not survive first contact with the enemy, the enemy in this case played by prevailing atmospheric conditions.

We sat through the football, every last excruciating, disappointing, I-flew-four-thousand-kilometres-for-this-crap second of it, went and ate some Turkish food, and went back to the hotel.
His shirt was more fun than the game
There plans were made, of which I was not fully informed, to drive the next day some two hours through orange country to a Benedictine monastery. An orange grove is quite a pretty thing, rows of dark glossy foliage and bright orange fruit on a backdrop of red sienna dirt and flawless blue skies. Five hundred orange groves is the same but really, really boring. The monastery was closed to visitors when we got there, but they let us look at the outside. It was brick.
See? Brick
No sooner had this road trip to end all underwhelming road trips been mapped out than Puyehue Volcano happened. Long dormant, it erupted and filled the sky with ash. I know when a similar thing happened in Iceland with the Great Unpronounceable Volcano, European travel was brought to a grinding halt, but that's Europe. It's tiny and Iceland is in its back yard. An over-zealous barbecuer could most likely create a big enough smoke screen to black out Europe. I was in Perth when Puyehue started, little bits of burning Chilean spite sent halfway around the world to inconvenience me just because I made a joke in poor taste about the miners. I don't remember making one, but it's just the kind of asshole thing I would do. Our flight to Melbourne was in question, but by Tuesday things were looking all right to leave Perth, but Tasmania was shut down. So off to Melbourne to lounge about in a hotel at the airline's expense for a day or two. Or seven, in fact. But then it was five. Oh, how they toyed with us, forcing us to choose flights but always teasing that if we rang back later something earlier might open up.
Weekend in Melbourne. What to do, what to do?
In the end there was time to see another football game, so we did. Every last excruciating, disappointing, I-flew-four-thousand-kilometres-then-turned-around-and-flew-another-three-thousand-five-hundred-kilometres-to-see-this-crap second of it. Then up before dawn, or at least before weekend dawn which is well established to be 10am, to fly back to Hobart. But of course there was the dog, left in the capable care of my sister. Who lives 200km from Hobart. So of we drove through the midlands fog that never lifts into the rain of the north and fetched the dog. Finally, after a trip to get a small dog that took longer than the flight to Perth, we were home.

I actually had a pretty good time.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Code And Prejudice

Let's take some work from Ms Austen.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
It's a classic opening sentence to a classic novel, and one with a clear meaning. Imagine that for some reason you wanted to take this rule and apply it to, for example, everybody in a neighbourhood. You hire a crack team of programmers to write the software so that you can plug in the personal details of your neighbours. Quite why you would do this I don't know, but work with me here. Let's see what misunderstandings could crop up.

In possession of a good fortune. Ambiguities are the seeds of defects and arguments about scope or intent. Obviously this needs to be clarified: what constitutes a good fortune? Is there a different threshold if discussing net worth compared to salary? Would different neighbourhoods have different ideas of what  constitutes a "good fortune"? Is a fortune just a monetary value? Questions easily answered, but questions which must be answered nonetheless.

It is  a truth universally acknowledged. One of the problems that occurs quite often is that the specifications contain outright mistakes, mistakes which are outside the developer's ability to recognise as such and which the client believe to be true. What if this rule is taken to a culture where a man can have many wives, or spouses are matched as children before a good fortune can be amassed, or the wife's family have to pay a dowry? Absolutes are great in specifications, but only if they're true.

A single man in possession of a good fortune. More subtle than ambiguities of definition are ambiguities of language. Although you might think it's pretty clear that the phrase means 'an unmarried man', other interpretations could be made. Maybe it's differentiating a good fortune possessed by one man from a good fortune possessed in common with several other men (say a business partnership). If the developer thinks that the alternative definition is pretty clear, then the first you'll know about it is when married men are being classified as in want of a wife.

Must be in want of a wife. Implied meaning can cause all sorts of problems when a requirement is broken down into its components. If the developer working on this part knows that earlier specifications refer to a single man, he is likely to correctly assume that a single man wants a single woman who will become his wife. Of course, marriage is entirely implied, as is the fact the woman in question is not a wife but rather is supposed to become one. In this more literal interpretation the man is looking for an already married woman.

So, in the worst possible case of interpreting this classic sentence you could end up with somebody who thinks that Jane Austen believes the following:
In every place in the world it is agreed by all people that a man (of any relationship status) who has a predetermined level of wealth which he doesn't hold in common with anybody else must be in want of a married woman for undefined reasons.
Now imagine what happens when you apply this to to a three hundred page design document written by people who have never even worked in the same building as a developer before.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Luigi Calling

I saw a girl in town the other day who was maybe fifteen wearing a t-shirt featuring the pixelated green 1-up mushroom. My thoughts in order were:

  1. Nice to see some geeking out in the streets
  2. Wait, when did the last 2D Mario game come out? 1990?
  3. She wouldn't have been alive when it came out
  4. She's probably never even played a 2D Mario game
  5. What does SNES era Mario art mean to someone to who has never experienced the games?
  6. Are old games the new Clash London Calling t-shirts?
  7. Good Lord I'm getting old

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Crane Transposition

I used to get annoyed back in the day when people would describe Frasier as intelligent or highbrow comedy. Frasier was a mainstream sitcom where the setting was highbrow; the jokes themselves were the same setups and punchlines you could find in Cheers, Friends, Bewitched, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air or a hundred other network sitcoms, but with a degree from Harvard. For example, consider the following scene.

Marty: Oh, hey, while you're there, could you pick me up a bottle of something fancy for my friend's retirement party?
Frasier: I think you mean sophisticated. Fancy is a contraction of fantasy, in the sense of desire and whimsy, hardly something one would expect or want to find at an all night liquor store.
Marty: Roz, could you pick me up a bottle of something fancy for my friend's retirement party?
Roz: Sure, what does he like?
Marty: I don't know. He's a retiring cop, just pick out anything that'll get him drunk.
Frasier: Just pick out anything!? Well maybe at the same time we can pick out a new suit for him without knowing his size, or, or pick out a condo in Florida without knowing his finances, or pick out a new car without knowing his driving habits. (Pause) Or his feelings about cup holders.
Marty (looks past Frasier at Roz): Wine. Get him red wine.
Frasier: Pinot noir? Cabernet sauvignon? Malbec? Shiraz? Sangiovese?
Marty (in desperation): Roz?
Roz: You know this can go on all night, why don't you just come with us?
Marty: ugh, that's what I was trying to avoid.
(All head to the elevator)Frasier: Oooh, I forgot merlot.

Fairly standard Frasier shtick. The salt of the earth old man gets frustrated with his over educated son and appeals to the slightly more normal producer to try and avoid the pedantry. Laughs ensue. However the scene is not actually from an episode of Frasier but rather from The Big Bang Theory episode "The Hofstader Isotope", which in its original form reads as follows.
Penny: Oh hey, while you're there, could you pick me up a few comics for my nephew's birthday?
Sheldon: I think you mean comic books. Comics are feeble attempts at humour featuring talking babies and anthropomorphised pets, found traditionally in the optimistically named 'funny pages'
Penny: Leonard, could you pick me up a few comics for my nephew's birthday?
Leonard: Sure, what does he like?
Penny: I don't know. He's thirteen, just pick out anything
Sheldon: Just pick out anything!? Well maybe at the same time we can pick out a new suit for him without knowing his size, or, or, pick out his career for him without knowing his aptitude, or pick out a new breakfast cereal without knowing his fiber requirements. (Pause) Or his feelings about little marshmallows.
Penny (looks past Sheldon at Leonard): Spiderman. Get him Spiderman.
Sheldon: Amazing Spiderman? Ultimate Spiderman? Spectacular Spiderman? The Marvellous Adventures of Spiderman? Spiderman 2099?
Penny (in desperation): Leonard?
Leonard: You know this can go on all night, why don't you just come with us?
Penny: Ugh, that's what I was trying to avoid.
(All head down stairs)Sheldon: Oooh, I forgot Sensational Spiderman.
The Big Bang Theory has jokes with geeky words in it spoken by people dressed like geeks (occasionally guest starring actual geeks), but that doesn't make it geek humour. Just saying.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Or They Have a Kindle

No device works better as an abridged introduction to a person than the bookshelf. That awkward gap while the host makes tea can be comfortably filled with a perusal of the shelves. A copy of Anna Karenina sits nestled in a clump of the distinctive orange and white striped Penguin Classics, but the receipt poking up from the middle of its bulk betrays the difference between the intention to read and the reality of daily life. Lord Of The Rings and the complete Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy don't necessarily indicate a geek, they're classics of their respective genres, but a shelf dedicated to the works of Feist is harder to fob off. Whole collections of one author, but the only Orson Scott Card book is Ender's Game? Not good enough to bother with the rest of the series it would seem. Lonely Planet Nepal looks like it got dropped in one too many mountain streams while a mint condition Lonely Planet Argentina is patiently waiting for funds to match dreams. The literary credibility of A Farewell To Arms and On The Road is left in tatters thanks to their shelf mate, a dog-eared edition of The Da Vinci Code. Hopefully it was just a loan to see what all the fuss was about. Down on the bottom shelf are a few of the coffee table books that won't fit on the actual coffee table, a copy of Watchmen, and a few weathered young adult mainstays with the sticker adorned spines that betray them as library books that never made it back to high school. The last part of the wait is spent reading the blurb of a Man Booker Prize winning novel that neither host nor visitor has any intention of ever reading.

I forget what my original point was.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Titans of Industry

I received my CafePress annual statement a few days ago. Annual takings were approximately equal to half the cost of one year's subscription. With entrepreneurial success like that, it might be time to find out where I can buy an island.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Meticulous Minute Taking

Looking through my work notebook (the paper kind) I found the images below scrawled under the date for a meeting. I have no notes to go with them, so I have no idea what the meeting was about. At first I would say I was just bored.

Then I may have become somewhat disconsolate

Clearly angry about something.

And finally engulfed in blackest depression, unsurprising given the date was a Monday. Nobody likes meetings on a Monday.

I think it's fair to say that I didn't get a lot out of that meeting, except that I should use a laptop to take notes, not a notebook.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Expressing the Unique

From my Chrome 'most visited' mosaic:
I feel bad for web designers these days, limited as they are to the straitjacket of only a couple of hundred shades of blue and a single white. Hopefully one day the standards authorities and engineers can unlock the full blue spectrum, so that these startling, original visions can be more fully expressed.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Not Being Angry About Flights

It took a long time for my flight(s) home from Dallas to make it to Hobart, there were delays and re-routings and unhelpful counter staff and lost luggage. At the end of it all I was face-smashingly angry and even thinking about it makes me kind of mad. But I'm not going to rant about it, I'm going to go to my travel happy place instead.

I appreciate the vast distances planes can cover and the speed they do it at, especially as an Australian, but after 37 hours of continual aggravation I looked back with immense fondness at travelling about on trains when I was in Europe. Ignoring the general enjoyability of watching passing countryside and the less extortionate price gouging if you want to book a ticket late, the three advantages of the train I enjoyed most were:
  1. No hassles. You can arrive at a train station five minutes before the train leaves, or ten seconds before if you like to live on the edge. Nobody wants to pat you down, rifle through your luggage, or even check your ticket.
  2. No nerves. I'm not a nervous flyer, or I don't think I am, but their is a noticeable change in the atmosphere of a plane as it takes off and lands. People close their books or grip their arm rests a little tighter. During a flight when you hit turbulence other passengers shift their eyes around, trying to figure out whether or not it's enough to worry about. On a train you can relax completely and do whatever you want, whether it's sleep, read, work or just stare out at the landscape. The only moment of concern you're likely to have is searching through your pockets for the ticket when the inspector comes around.
  3. Better destinations. Airports are mostly in the middle of fields where there's room for runways and giant noisy planes to takeoff and land all day. When you pull into Berlin Hauptbahnhof and step onto the platform you just feel as though you have arrived in Berlin. When you fly into London Heathrow, the first thought is what you have to do next to get to London. The feeling that your journey is almost over after a 10+ hour flight is deflating to say the least.
In addition to these points your luggage will never get lost because you carry it yourself the whole time, and if you want room to stretch your legs, the sleeper and first class upgrades are in the magnitude of a night at a cheap hotel, not the week with a high class hooker airlines charge.

So, in summary, yay trains.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Land of the Automobile

I spent last week in Dallas. The first question many people asked when I mentioned this before going was "what are you going to do in Dallas?" which seems a bit unfair to poor old little Dallas. The answer was that I went to geek out with friends who I see rarely who were all there by an unlikely series of coincidences. And geek out we did. Pizza was eaten, dice were rolled, cards were tapped (unnecessarily considering the game in question, but they were tapped nonetheless). That we didn't play any video games is frankly remarkable.

But the disproportionate excitement as one face of a plastic cube (or tetrahedron or dodecahedron) came up instead of another is a tale for another time, a more distant blog. Today I want to discuss how damn alien Dallas felt as a city.

When Dallas was planned, it wasn't designed with pedestrians as a secondary consideration, or even an afterthought; it was designed by someone who believed that the basic unit of humanity is the car. Getting from place to place by car in Dallas is easy, easier than the inner city of Paris or London must be, so if you assume there are only noble car drivers and worthless hobos not worthy of your consideration then the city planning is a success. However if you assume one day a person might want to get from point A to point B on foot, the large stretches of road with no footpaths at all and the seemingly random placement of businesses looks less inspired.

I'm not sure if it is a corollary of the fact that nobody is ever moving slowly enough to appreciate the outside of a building before pulling into the car park, but the buildings in the non-residential areas of Dallas are an ungracious, grudging concession that perhaps the malls, eateries and light industry should be housed in something. The standard seems to be a gravelly pink-brown oblong shape with maybe some narrow windows near the top of the building. On foot, outside these buildings, it feels as though the city is saying "what are you doing outside? Don't you know that people belong inside buildings, where there's air conditioning? At least get in a car where you can watch a movie in the back of the seat in front of you." Even the pubs and restaurants, which have the same level of uniqueness and atmosphere you'd expect in any other city, have great chunks of their personality sucked into the utterly unremarkable buildings in which they are placed.

I am a pedestrian. Don't drive, can't drive. Dallas is the first place I've been under the impression that not being able to drive is an embarrassing pathology rather than a handy skill I should get some day.