March 2005

Saturday night animal fun

Saturday night: the corn snakes get busy; Jennifer comes home from an open house — well, an open barn — smelling like cow, at which point Goober, who must have spent some of his youth in a barn, immediately tries to eat her hair.

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Changes that are also hopefully improvements

My ankylosing spondylitis has flared up again — it’s the season for it — and while it’s having an impact on my writing and correspondence, it looks like my ability to code is unchanged. (How much ability I had in the first place, well.) Ironically, the absence of office-related pressure seems to help my productivity — viz., I’m productive, if not communicative. But I digress.

I’ve been mucking around with this blog’s categories — especially Movable Type’s new subcategories, which don’t work the way I thought they would, in that a post assigned to a subcategory is not automatically assigned to its parent. The category URLs have changed around a bit. It’s still in progress. (See the archives for a category list.)

So far, though, I’ve separated out posts about our pet reptiles into their own subcategory, which, along with some tomfoolery with Flickr RSS feeds, allowed me to revamp the collection page. I’m not completely happy with the results, so I don’t think I’m quite finished there, yet, either.

A long time coming, but finished yesterday: a site map that covers all four of my domains as well as all my web stuff wherever it may be. I drew my inspiration from Jessamyn’s page, especially in terms of arranging things by topic as well as by location. I’ll try to keep this reasonably up to date.

Finally, I’ve gone and finished the mobile version. I don’t suppose there’s someone out there with a PDA or mobile phone out there who could, you know, check that site for me?

Gotta cut back on the mice

Snakes in captivity are invariably fed too much. Keepers, particularly novices used to mammalian metabolisms, have a hard time grasping the concept that even once a week may lead to obesity. I’ve seen some hideously overweight snakes, with a thick layer of fat outside their rib cages. Snakes have low metabolisms, and in captivity they don’t exactly exercise much.

Our snakes are not overfed. This is as much a function of weekly feedings being stretched out to every 10 to 14 days as a result of scheduling as it is by design, but either way it works. Overall, I’m pleased with our snakes’ condition: they’re mostly lean and muscular, with little or no fat.

Even so, our glossy snake is looking heftier than she should, and that’s probably a result of her diet — not the amount or the frequency, but the kind. Glossy snakes normally feed on lizards in the wild, though they’re not strict specialists; in captivity they can and will take rodents, and ours has eaten nothing but since I got her in September 2001 (see previous entry). Generally, she’s preferred mice on the small size, and I think that’s because she’s not keen on fur: she ends up eating multiple pinky mice rather than larger sizes, though she’s been eating fuzzy mice (the next step up) recently.

I seem to recall (but cannot find the reference to it) that gray-banded kingsnakes — another lizard-eating species — that are kept long-term on a mouse diet accumulate serious fatty deposits. I wonder if that’s akin to what’s happening here. It’s not an unreasonable guess that a mouse diet is too rich for the glossy snake (though it doesn’t seem to be a problem for garter snakes; then again, they’re more active), though I don’t yet know what to do about it. (Lizards are not an option!) For the moment, I’ll try cutting her back some more and see if that helps.

New front page

The new front page looks fantastic in Safari and Firefox, if I do say so myself, but I’m dreading that it’s just going to look broken in Internet Explorer for Windows. (It looks pretty bad in IE 5.2 for the Mac.) I’ll probably have to keep tinkering.

A farewell to #556677

Like the new site design? I sure do. I’m happier with how this site looks than I’ve been in a while. After more than three years in some shade of blueish grey — usually #556677 — I’m trying something different. Most of the changes are CSS related, or could be done in the PHP site template, so once I settled on the new design, changing over most pages was a cinch. Still a few loose ends to tie up, though, especially the front page, as well as some photo pages.

Ranting renewed

Hmm. I seem to be writing more rants lately — viz., the trio of posts in the last 24 hours about the AIM kerfuffle and the post about Apple’s rumour site lawsuits a week ago Sunday. It’s been a while: I used to write a lot of piss-and-vinegar entries, but I haven’t lately, except for some deeply personal shite. I’m conscious of the relationship between stress and autoimmune disease, so I’ve had a vested interest in not getting too wound up. Also, I abhor confrontation. This means either that I’m doing a lot better or that I’ll eventually collapse from this if I keep doing it.

The latest AIM privacy developments

There have been some developments in the AIM story, which I’d better report here for completeness’ sake, since I’ve been shooting off my mouth about it.

First of all, AOL will be bringing out a revised TOS. Ben Stanfield is claiming vindication, both on his blog and in an e-mail to me.

Ben points out that lawyers agree with his position on ownership and content: essentially, the terms of service permit exactly what Ben says they do (e.g. here and here). Fair enough: point conceded. But that doesn’t mean that AOL was lying when it said it wasn’t monitoring communications. As their spokesman said, the offending passages of the TOS were only intended for public posts. From the CNet article:

That unfortunate wording was intended to apply to an AIM feature called “Rate-a-Buddy,” spokesman Andrew Weinstein said. Like the classic site, Rate-a-Buddy permits AIM users to post photographs publicly so others can rate them on how “cute” and “interesting” they seem to be.
The Rate-a-Buddy language was “wrapped into” the AIM terms of service, and that “inartfully” worded phrase has been deleted from a new version that will be made public Tuesday, Weinstein said. “It’s going to make it very clear that this section applies to public areas.”

In other words, they goofed. What they intended was not what ended up in the legal language. (As someone who once edited laws and regulations, I can tell you that that happens all the time.) So we’re not talking about a change in policy, only a change in legal wording to better reflect AOL’s intent, which has not changed. This is the legal equivalent of correcting a typo, though, granted, mistakes in this context have a much greater impact. (You think this is bad? Imagine this kind of confusion happening in, say, criminal law, and you will understand why lawyers are expensive.)

There were two separate questions in this controversy: what was in the terms of service; and what plans AOL had for our data. Ben and those who agreed with him focused on the first question; I and others focused on the second. Neither of us was wrong, but neither of us was really answering the other’s question: the TOS did not mean that AOL was lying; and AOL’s statements did not explain away the problematic clauses in the TOS.

AIM hysteria continues

Oy. Ben Stanfield’s response to an AOL spokeman’s denial that they monitor AIM conversations is to call him a liar. Because a random nitwit’s parsing of a TOS document is inherently more accurate than an official denial. I can’t believe Ben’s take gets the benefit of the doubt, but AOL’s response doesn’t: apart from his interpretation of the document, which I believe is mistaken, there is as yet no corroborating evidence to support his claim.

Cory doesn’t believe the AOL spokesman either, but that’s Cory being Cory.

Update: Ben uses MacSlash to flog this horse some more. More coverage from the Houston Chronicle and from Slashdot.

No it doesn’t

Spreading like wildfire across the blogosphere this weekend is the news that AOL’s terms of service for its Instant Messenger service have been changed to give them the right to use your messages and denies you any right to privacy. It’s all over the place: Boing Boing, MetaFilter, Slashdot, TUAW. The originator of this story appears to be Ben Stanfield (MacSlash’s acaben) who posted about it on Friday.

There’s only one problem with the story. It looks like it’s completely full of shit.

Continue reading this entry »

Jetsgo and the CTA

News coverage of the Jetsgo bankruptcy kept mentioning how people with Jetsgo tickets should call the Canadian Transportation Agency: first the news reported that Jetsgo said to do that; then the news said so itself. Though I once worked in the transportation sector, albeit obliquely, I couldn’t figure out why. From checking their site, though, I presume it’s to find out what your options are; they’ve certainly put together a handy page of advice for Jetsgo ticketholders.

Miscellaneous Pontiac updates

The things you don’t find out when you’re not a reporter any more and are not otherwise plugged into the local scene.

Some time in the last six months, Transport Thom cut its late Friday and weekend bus service to this region. The only buses that apparently remain are the commuter buses, which leave Shawville at 6 a.m. and Ottawa at 3:30 p.m. David and Rita found this out the hard way trying to visit us out here in the sticks.

The Pontiac Pet Shop may have moved rather than closed (see previous entry); I saw its sign in a little strip mall on Highway 301 just across from the entrance to the Smurfit-Stone pulp mill north of Portage du Fort. So maybe it’s relocated to a somewhat less prime location.

Sometimes I miss knowing the details.

B.Mac’s return


A correspondent identifying himself as a former B.Mac employee writes, “Have a look at this. After the company goes belly up and hundreds of people including employees and clients are hurt in its closing, they have reopened.” It looks like B.Mac, after closing all four stores and declaring bankruptcy last fall, will be opening a store on the Plateau in Montreal. Down, but not out.

Their closure did little to endear themselves to the local Mac cognoscenti, some of whom were, if I remember correctly, quite pissed, especially those who didn’t know where else to go for servicing (or those who had gear in for repair when the doors were shuttered). And with Apple opening retail stores in Canada this year (though no stores confirmed for Montreal yet), this can’t be the best climate for them. Still, despite these challenges, I wish them well.

See previous entries: B.Mac closes Ottawa store; B.Mac closure update.

The road to poverty is paved with graduate degrees

Via Richard, a year-old article in the Village Voice about the perils of the academic job market that makes me think I’m better off financially than I would be had I not quit the PhD in 1999. Of course, I thought that back when I was pulling down $52,000 a year from the federal government. Now I think that even in my present, far less lucrative circumstances, I’m better off. Because at least I’m not trapped in a system that routinely exploits graduate students and sessional instructors.

Grad students have always resigned themselves to relative poverty in anticipation of a cushy, tenured payoff. But in the past decade, the rules of the game have changed. Budget pressures have spurred universities’ increasing dependence on so-called “casual labor,” which damages both the working conditions of graduate students and their job prospects. Over half of the classroom time at major universities is now logged by non-tenure-track teachers, both graduate teaching assistants — known as TAs — and adjuncts. At community colleges, part-timers make up 60 percent of the faculties.

Even if the job market is dire, there is no real disincentive to a department having as many graduate students as it can. Apart from the prestige, they’re a cheap labour pool now, and ensure that there will be a ready supply of desperate sessional instructors to work for low pay.

The also pseudonymous Thomas H. Benton was a frequent contributor to Invisible Adjunct’s blog and has penned a series of cautionary columns for the Chronicle of Higher Education. He is even more blunt than IA. “The premise of graduate education in the humanities is a lie: Students are not apprentices preparing for a life of scholarship and teaching,” he says. “They are a cheap source of labor and status for institutions and faculty and, after they earn their degrees, most join the reserve army of the academic underemployed.” Benton, a professor at a small liberal arts college, warns his students about trying to follow in his footsteps. “My experience as a working-class kid who finally earned an Ivy League Ph.D. is that higher education is not about social mobility or personal enrichment; it is one trap among many for people who are uninitiated into the way power and influence operate in this culture.”

The article goes on to point out that PhDs do much better once they leave the academic job market, which I can certainly attest to. Of course they’re talking about better in financial terms; while graduate school is a case study in deferred gratification, it’s usually ego and prestige that motivate academics — not money. Leaving academia behind is a tremendous blow to your self-image: after years of relentless focus, you’re no longer sure what your purpose in life is. Not easy to walk away, even if it’s in your interest to do so. Small wonder that that’s exploited.

Think Secret, trade secrets and our right to know


Much of the online commentary regarding Apple’s lawsuits against several rumour sites frames it in terms of whether the rumour sites are bona fide journalists. In doing so, they conflate Apple rumour-mongers with bloggers and run up the flag on the so-far endless debate on whether bloggers are journalists. That’s an issue near and dear to the hearts of many bloggers craving legitimacy, but in this particular case it’s a red herring: whether or not Think Secret et al. are legitimate journalists has nothing to do with whether they were right to publish Apple’s upcoming products or are protected from the consequences of doing so.

Jeff Harrell thinks so too:

Was [Think Secret’s Nick] Ciarelli pursuing a news story? If the answer is yes, then he deserves to be given an exception from the laws governing trade secrets. For example, if he reported that Apple was dumping toxic chemicals into the groundwater behind their corporate headquarters, that would clearly be an important story, one which the public would have an obvious right to know. It would also clearly be a trade secret. In that case, the public’s right to know trumps company’s right to protect its trade secrets.
But we’re not talking about illegal dumping here. We’re not talking about blowing the whistle. We’re talking about the disclosure of specifications and prices for upcoming products, details that were obtained by convincing Apple employees to break their confidentiality agreements.
Newsworthy? Hardly. Important? No. Was Ciarelli on the trail of The Truth, a latter-day Bob Woodward blowing the roof off of a massive scandal? No, he was not. He was soliciting trade secrets and publishing them. So I don’t see any reason at all why he should be exempted from the normal laws governing such activity.

The test, therefore, is not whether whoever’s doing the publishing is a journalist, but whether the public interest is being served by it. And that’s something that can only be determined by the legal system. News organizations that publish private details about celebrities — or even ordinary people — do get sued, and successfully: the test is not simply whether it’s a secret that people are interested in. Corporations aren’t people, you may reply — but corporations do have trade secrets. Hence NDAs and the law under which Think Secret is being sued. What if Google Watch received, and published, Google’s entire PageRank algorithm? I’ll bet we’d all find that very interesting — unless we owned once-valuable Google stock.

And reporters who do publish stories that blow the whistle and serve the public interest, but who fail to reveal their sources, can get into trouble anyway (though in that case it was a public inquiry, not the leakee looking for blood). Journalists are sometimes threatened with jail for not identifying sources (in the context of criminal trials resulting from their reporting). Why should rumour sites get a free pass just because they’re making ad revenue off of our eagerness to find out what Steve is pulling out of his sleeve next?

It’s hard to see how learning about upcoming or unreleased Apple products a little earlier than the formal announcement serves the public interest. If you think it does, you probably need more hobbies.

Movable Type upgrade, part two — fixing comments

Comments — which on my Movable Type install are only enabled on The Map Room at this point — went blooey a bit. At the outset, I tried enabling TypeKey registration and moderating unregistered comments: TypeKey logins would be posted immediately; otherwise comments would wait in a moderation queue until I approved them. Except that didn’t work: TypeKey information wasn’t passed on, and all my test comments were moderated. A bit of checking led to a possible cause: my MT install is on, but The Map Room is on — the authentication system uses cookies, and cookies cannot normally be passed between domains. I’m sure a hack could be worked out eventually, but I lack the l33t sk1llz, and I’d already spent the better part of Thursday getting this far.

So I decided to leave things unauthenticated, but bolstered my spam fighting with the following tools: DSBL, which checks comments against a blacklist of open proxies; and Real Comment Throttle, which limits the number of posts from any IP (since spammers routinely attack with multiple IPs). I’ve set a limit low enough to catch even a small-scale spam attack, but high enough to allow my usual comment volume. I still close comments on entries older than 45 days, and now comments are force-moderated on entries older than 10 days.

My spam-blocking is not as absolute as it would be with TypeKey, but it’s quantitatively better than it was before I upgraded. (I should also mention that MT-Blacklist works much better on Movable Type 3.1x than it did on 2.6x.)

All my other plugins seem to still be working, including CloseComments and RSSFeed. A tip if you’re upgrading: delete your old MT-Blacklist. Having both Blacklist plugins running can lead to some strange side effects, including multiple e-mail notifications and forcing every comment to be moderated, regardless of your settings.

Movable Type upgrade

Upgraded my Movable Type installation to 3.15 overnight. Overall it went far more smoothly than I had expected: the way some people were carrying on, you’d think this upgrade was equivalent to a Linux kernel rebuild. It took a few minutes to back up all my blog entries, a couple of hours, at most, to upgrade Movable Type, and another couple of hours to rework my Map Room individual templates so that they’d handle TypeKey registration. Everything seems to work at that end, but there’s no guarantee things won’t go blooey over here once I click on the “Save” button. Crossing my fingers.

New(ish) reptile photos

I’ve been putting up some of my older snake photos — finally! — and putting them into albums on Flickr. First, our current reptile collection, one photo per critter, with some photos a few years old. (But they’re good photos.) Second, some feeding photos; I’ve got some more of these coming. And third and most spectacularly, photos of the Red-sided Garter Snakes being born back in June 2002 (see previous entry). Enjoy.