Kettle meet pot…

Just saw on the Times web site that Defense Secretary Gates accuses Myanmar of “Criminal Neglect” because they won’t allow the four ships dispatched by the Navy to participate in the relief efforts, which would include helicoptering supplies to survivors in the transportation-challenged delta.

Hop in the not-so wayback machine to Hurricane Katrina. The US refused all sorts of aid offers from foreign governments in the aftermath.  According to this article in the Washington Post, 54 of 77 offers from Canada, Israel and Britain were refused, including offers for much needed search and rescue teams.

Put in that light, one might even describe our response to Katrina as criminal neglect. On the other hand, if the US was hesitant to accept so many offers of aid, perhaps we can understand why the rulers of a closed society might do the same.

Ignite Boston Recap

I went to the third installment of Ignite Boston this evening. It’s a series of five-minute lightning talks on various technical talks, along with a couple of upsized keynotes. My (partial) recap:

  • The most illuminating talk for me was by Jonathan Zdziarski on security on the iPhone ecosystem. Turns out using the iPhone is a huge security risk because people are actively hacking on the iPhone but not disclosing their hacks because Apple will fix them. This makes it really easy to get data off a stolen iPhone. Scarier still is that if your iPhone breaks, and you turn it in for a new one under warranty, then the person who buys your old one refurbished has a pretty good chance of recovering your data. Pretty scary stuff, and downright outrageous that Apple doesn’t do a better job of wiping the memory under those circumstances. See Jonathon’s site for more information.
  • Jesse Vincent had a good rant on the parallel between sharecropping and Web 2.0 sites. Its your data and your time, but their property, tools and profit…
  • Juhan Sonin talked about design tenets for beautiful design. Is putting together an online collection of them on wikia somewhere, but I don’t have the url handy. There’s an earlier draft of the presentation on flickr.
  • Alexander Wissner-Gross presented which aims to (precisely) calculate the co2 emissions of a web site based on its location and the location of its users (eg, having lots of browsers from West Virginia = lots of coal burning). They’ll “automatically” buy carbon offsets for you so you can advertise your site as green, but I’m still not convinced carbon offsets mean anything. Lots of money pouring in there, but not a lot of proof what works and what doesn’t and for how long.

High Trek (Stingy) Adventures

Kristi and I joined forces as team “puppy nappers” for yesterday’s scavenger hunt race around Boston. I think we ended up somwhere in the middle of the pack after a couple of hours running around Boston’s south end, Harvard Square, and searching for a clown in the Public garden. It was a good (if tiring) time.

I was disappointed at the beginning of the day when they announced that the race had raised $350 for a local AIDS group that had provided volunteers. The race had 250 teams at $86 a team, so that’s $21,500 in revenue. While not run as a fundraiser, that’s a pretty poor showing. That aside, this thing is a huge cash cow. There’s a whole raft of sponsors that surely covered all the prizes and gift bags and then some so their only expenses are salary. It was hard to say who was an employee vs. a volunteer, but the number is probably no more than 6, more likely 4 or so. Not a bad gig if you can get it, as they say.

New Job

Now that I’m just about done with my master’s degree, the time has come to return to the working world.  I read this great article in the NY Times magazine about Patients Like Me which is an online social community for people with chronic diseases and was really interested by their model. After seeing a post in the Boston Ruby group mailing list, I got in touch and now am pleased to announce I’ll be joining their team in a few weeks.

Now that school is done, I’m excited to be able to focus on one thing again after all the time I spent working with part time school (and then school with part time work), and reclaim some long lost leisure time activities too.

Patriotism jumps the shark?

Free agency comes to the Olympics. This has probably been happening for a long time, but two recent articles on told of athletes acquiring citizenship in other nations for the sole purpose of playing on their Olympic team.

  • Becky Hammon , basketball player who has no Russian family connection whatsoever, signs on with a Russian club team to play professionally and with the side benefit of a Russian passport so she can play on their Olympic team. (Because she’s not good enough to make the American team)
  • Kathryn Bertine, has an ongoing series in ESPN magazine in which she searches for a sport in which she can make the Olympics, and then after settling on cycling, ends up sending emails to scores of countries in the hopes one will give her a passport before finally being taken in by St Kitts and Nevin. She actually makes a pretty good case for what she’s doing in the eight part of her series: “If being an Olympian means being part of something internationally positive, does it really matter what country I represent?”

I’m not sure what the takeaway from all this is. You decide.

This did teach me more about the ins and outs of dual citizenship though. As I’m both British and American at this point, my understanding was that America would frown upon going out of your way to acquire more passports (instead of getting one because you’re Jewish or have an Irish grandmother) but it turns out the law says doing so only revokes your US citizenship if you do so with the intent of renouncing one’s US citizenship, and the presumption is that one does not intend that unless otherwise stated. So there you have it, you’ve got the go ahead to stock up on passports just in case the dollar finally crashes.

Gas price holiday

I’m pleased to see Thomas Friedman hit the nail on head in is op-ed “Dumb as We Wanna Be“. The idea of having a gas price holiday – rescinding the 18.4 cents a gallon gas tax for the peak driving season in the summer is ridiculous. The way forward is to increase these taxes, not decrease them. People need to start paying for the negative externalities of living hours away from work or driving across country on vacation. Dropping the per-gallon tax provides the most benefit to the drivers of the least efficient vehicles or who drive the most, which incents the opposite behavior this country needs to start tackling climate change and stop sending our money overseas.

We need leaders who will tackle issues like this head on, instead of leaders who will pander to the people. Look kids: no gas taxes, checks in your mailbox, shiny things!

If we’re going tax the oil companies, which we should, we shouldn’t waste that money on replacing the gas taxes, it should go to supporting long term incentives for alternative energies so that the private sector can invest for the long haul. It should go to expanding and electrifying a rail network to take oil guzzling trucks and cars off the road. And so on…

Huckabee’s Negative Countdown

This dates from a few weeks ago – Mike Huckabee had a countdown on his web site to the launch of what turned out to be his political action committee. At the appointed time, the counter hit zero. Instead of the page reloading to unveil what we’d been waiting for, or just stopping at zero, the counter just kept on counting down into negative numbers. (Even the counters go negative this season?)

After refreshing the page myself, the countdown was still going negative, until the site finally launched a few minutes later, and for that I’m sure we can all breathe a sigh of relief.


Watched the first 2 episodes of Carrier, Life Aboard the Aircraft Carrier USS Nimitz last night. Its a reality-show style documentary about life at see on a carrier for six months in 2005. Its interesting because it shows the lives of a a core group of people drawn from all over the ship’s crew, rather than just the much more visible pilots that couldn’t do anything without the other 5000 people on board. Showing on PBS this week in HD, and episodes are available online too.

The short circuit article

About three and a half years ago I co-wrote an article named “Increase stability and responsiveness by short-circuiting code” for IBM’s developer works site, and for some reason in the past few days it has repeatedly asked for attention (“hi this is 2004, your article is on the line, and its woefully dated”). First, the one page abstract we submitted fell out of a book on my bookshelf, then I was asked about it at at least one interview. Sadly, that was one of the top results for my name in google for a while and people still find it.
I figure its about time to revisit, and disavow, the implementation in the article, if that isn’t already obvious to anyone.

The idea was to provide a way to time-box operations that could take an unknown amount of time. In this way for example, a web page that must be displayed faster than a certain time can be guaranteed to run in that time, if it can do without the results of operations that take too long to execute.
One obvious flaw is that the code creates LOTS of new threads for a short period of time. It should have used a thread pool to reduce that churn.
The best reason not to use that code is that Java 1.5 introduced a whole set of Concurrency utilities. ExecutorService and Future. There are lots of examples about, so you can check them out.

The high level view is that you package your functionality in a Runnable or Callable (depending if you need to return a result), submit it to an instance of ExecutorService to run. It will return a Future object which can be queried to get the result. One can call get on the Future class, which will return right away if the task is done execuiting, or block until the sooner of a specified timeout or the task completing. Even better, one can submit multiple tasks at once with invokeAll(..) and that will return when all tasks are complete or the timeout has expired.

Lessig at the Berkman center

I had the pleasure of seeing Lawrence Lessig unveil the next phase of the Change-congress movement last Friday at the Berkman center at Harvard. Lessig gives phenomenal presentations and could probably be compelling talking about just about any topic. The topic this time was the distorting (rather than corrupting) influence money has on politics and I thought it was eye opening and informative.

Lessig mentioned a study showing people stop reading or tune out of news as soon as political donations are mentioned as part of a story, so even without real corruption most of the time, the appearance of influence is enough to make large numbers of people disengage from the political process.

I wish I could link to the talk, but as far as I can tell its not yet online despite being webcase live. Check out the event’s page, hopefully a link to the video will appear there one day.

Update: theres a video posted on the change congress blog