Easy Quiz

What Venomous Egg-Laying Mammal Are You? It’s also worth checking out The Bad Review Revue and Squirrelly 1.5 (about the author’s son who is only a few months older than Amy and thus can serve as an Early Warning System).

Later…OK, this guy is just too good. Check out Virus Alert and No, Don’t Be Chicken Again! (in case you thought I was the King of Useless Knowledge) and A sentence was at a job interview (in case you thought I was Chief Grammar Weenie). Yes, I know I should be working, but I haven’t had either a break at work or a laugh this good in ages.

Smartest Boy in Class

Apparently a young orca (“killer whale”) learned how to use fish as bait to catch seagulls, and then – this is the really cool part – taught his friends how to do it. If only they had video.

Pet Peeve

An important principle in system design, including systems like the web, is called graceful degradation. While it sounds like an oxymoron, it’s not. Another way of putting it is that the designer should try not to make something worse than it has to be. Obviously there are some components of any system that are truly essential to that system’s operation, such as the disk drive in your computer that holds critical system data, but that set should be kept to a minimum. Anything outside of that set should result in some loss of functionality but not total system failure. For example, the failure of a disk drive containing nothing but photos should prevent only access to those photos, the loss of a mouse should not preclude using the keyboard instead, and so on.

Another form of graceful degradation has to do with capabilities rather than failures, and that brings me to my pet peeve. If a user lacks a certain capability but retains others, they should be allowed to use what they still have. If your computer doesn’t have super-fast 3D graphics hardware, games should display more slowly using software. If you don’t have the latest processor or gobs of memory your programs should run slower, not refuse to run. This is an area where a lot of web-page authors really screw up. They create pages that expect a certain screen size; if the user doesn’t have that big a screen, the page doesn’t degrade gracefully by displaying in the smaller space but instead displays improperly or not at all. They use JavaScript and make no allowance for users who might have turned it off for security reasons. The example that “inspired” me to rant today was of a site that requires the Flash plugin to see simple pictures. I hate it when people use Flash – and force me to follow suit – when HTML would do, just like some people hate it when people use HTML where plain text would do.

The great thing about the web is that just about anyone can publish their own page. The downside is that a lot of people doing so are inept.

Katrina Stuff

For all of those who think our government just could not possibly have done a better job in New Orleans, here are two recent items:

I just have to wonder: what would it take for some people to admit that the government screwed up? How much more than that would it take for them to actually do anything about it. I daren’t even hope they’ll take the obvious next step and reflect on how voting based on their social agenda instead of actual competence led to this.

There are two other memes about Katrina that I’d also like to address. One is the idea that this demonstrates how the government can not and should not be expected to perform certain functions, and on how reliance on the private sector is superior. This is what’s called a self fulfilling prophecy. Government can do better than this, and quite recent governments would have done better. The failure occurred precisely because people who already believed in a government “small enough to drown in a bathtub” deliberately gutted FEMA and other agencies that could have played a positive role, and then they have the gall to claim the outcome is evidence of their original belief? Please. That’s circular. They rigged the experiment, so their results prove nothing like what they claim.

The other meme, as most recently spread by Astroturf Central Station, is that price gouging is good. Here’s an example of the “reasoning” they use:

Consider — if a gas station owner has gas, someone has to decide who gets it. If the price remains at pre-hurricane levels, many will fill their tanks, because they can afford to do so, against the chance (and even likelihood) that gas will later become completely unavailable (a self-fulfilling prophecy if the price is not allowed to rise). Many will do so even if they have no immediate need for it. But after the first few people do this, the gas will be gone, and none will be available for those who come after, because it’s now tied up in the gas tanks of those who didn’t really need it. Those who didn’t get any may include emergency workers, or truck drivers who need it to go out and find other goods to bring in.

This claim that price gouging leads to an optimal allocation of resources is bullshit. If prices are jacked through the roof the resources will go not to those with the greatest need but to those with the greatest ability to pay. Those emergency workers, who are probably on a government budget, would be screwed most of all. Those who least need the resources are the ones who will get them. The definition of “optimal” matters. The outcome will be optimal only in terms of profit, but not in any terms that a moral person would consider.

The other thing that’s wrong with “gouging is good” is the idea that it’s an example of the free market. No, it’s an example of exactly the opposite. Gougers are taking advantage of the (in this case temporary) lack of competition and/or consumer choice, in just the same way that a monopolist might. For exactly the same reasons that monopolies are antithetical to free markets, so is price gouging. It’s pure profiteering, benefiting only the gougers at the expense of both market freedom and real flesh-and-blood people in need. It’s neither morally nor practically good. It’s despicable, and so are those who defend it.

Modest Proposal

I’ve heard that the Republicans plan to introduce their estate-tax repeal bill in the very near future. I’m not generally one who believes all other activity should stop when a disaster strikes, but it does seem like a bit of a ploy to get a favorite agenda item through while people are preoccupied with other matters. Here’s my counterproposal:

Instead of repealing the estate tax, use its proceeds for the next X months to pay for disaster reconstruction and improved preparedness.

I don’t know what X is, but I’m sure some analysis will yield a reasonable value. Let’s banish the stench of partisan maneuvering during a time of crisis, and also fund all of those projects that have gone begging for too long. Once that’s done, then we can have a debate about taxes.

Why Settle?

Now that I get most of my news and commentary online, one of the few things I tend to look at in the Boston Globe every day is the chess problem. Many times, I’ve thought there was an alternate solution that was just as good as the one given, and every time I’ve been wrong…until now. Here’s the position:

starting position

The proposed move is Qe1, threatening both to pin the black queen with Bb4 and to capture the bishop at b1. Why settle for just gaining a bishop, though? There’s another move that gains much more, as I’ll explain “below the fold” so people will have a chance to solve it themselves.