Peevishly honored

I got linked by Arnold Zwicky!

The trackback ended up on the first entry in that month, because his link doesn’t lead to the entry itself, but rather to all entries for the month of August, of which that one appears to be first, but is actually the last. In blogging “the last shall be first”, I suppose.

And now I’m peevishly complaining about someone blogging about my peeveblogging. But I’m still not peeveblogging about peeveblogging about peeves.

How to write a good bug report

A friend of mine was complaining tonight about how people don’t write good bug reports. A Google search for “how to write good bug reports” turned up some sensible advice on the subject, but mostly verbose and poorly-written.

The best advice I ever got about how to write good bug reports was from my former manager. We use a tool at work that other people write for us, so they aren’t users, and we aren’t programmers. We have to work at it to write explanations that make sense to them, and they don’t intuitively understand what we’re expecting to happen in all cases.

Her advice can be summed up in three short points:

1. Tell them what the problem behavior is.
2. Tell them what you did that led to the problem behavior.
3. Tell them what behavior you want instead.

#2 is extremely important. Be as specific as possible. Write it down in a series of numbered steps. In programmer-speak this is called “steps to reproduce”. This will make your programmer happy and also make sure that they don’t ignore you because they can’t see the same problem on their setup and can’t be sure how you created it on yours.

Personally, I was having the most trouble with #3, remembering not just to complain about the problem and assume they would know why it was a problem and what the solution was, but to explain exactly what I wanted instead, in detail. Trust me, the programmer doesn’t automatically know what you want. They’re hired to write code, not read minds.

Now go forth, and write good bug reports.

If your organization happens to use Bugzilla, this information (particularly about how to write a good summary) may also be helpful.

Trust Google Maps

[Didn’t post this because I kept thinking I would add pictures, but it might as well be accessible while I fail to do so.]

A few weeks ago after work I was going to Merit Vegetarian Restaurant (548 Lawrence Expwy, Sunnyvale, CA). I asked Google Maps how to get there, since I haven’t been there before and I’m not very familiar with the roads in Sunnyvale south of my office.

It told me to take Maude to Fair Oaks. Maude is okay, but I wanted to take Arques, which is quieter and which I had to be on after Fair Oaks anyway, but Google was (sort of) correct: Arques is apparently not continuous, since two blocks of it serve as an offramp from Central Expwy. Which is, incidentally, a fantastic example of the way our road system is designed to favor cars. Arques would be an excellent through route for cyclists, except that it isn’t through because it’s repurposed as an offramp so that people can get to work faster because their roadway is limited-access. Fantastic.

I took Arques anyway; there’s less traffic than Maude and Fair Oaks. So I detoured by a block, managed to get into the left-turn lane on Fair Oaks to get back on Arques, and all was well. Until I got to Wolfe, crossed over, and discovered that there’s no bike lane on Arques for one block, presumably because of the way the road configuration at the intersection with Wolfe is set up. Fantastic, again.

When I finally got to Lawrence, I made another left turn and then discovered that Lawrence isn’t just an expressway, but a particularly sucky one. Unlike true limited-access, where there are only a few merge lanes at major intersections/exits, Lawrence in that section has a bunch of little roads that intersect it at “quasi-T” intersections: you can get off or on, but not cross the expressway. (Apparently Central in that same area has the same issue. Yuck.)

These are no fun for cyclists, to say the least. But luckily I wasn’t going far. I arrived at Merit with no further aggravations.

Leaving again, after a very good dinner of soup and tea, I recalled the quick search I had done earlier to find out how to get to Lawrence Caltrain (closer to the restaurant than my usual destination of (downtown) Sunnyvale Caltrain). Not surprisingly, Lawrence Caltrain is off of Lawrence, but the directions Google Maps gave me were strange, instructing me to do what looked like: exit right, make a U-turn, and go right back out to the original road. What? But both at the time I looked at it, and the time I left the restaurant, I was in a hurry and thought “Whatever. It can’t be that hard.”

As I left it started to rain, first lightly and then with increasing intensity. I got to the intersection of Lawrence and Kifer, which I recognized as the place to turn, but I saw a sign that I thought said to turn left for the train. That was wrong, it quickly transpired, but by that time I had already wasted precious moments waiting for a light to turn green for me (it didn’t), going down the wrong road, turning around, and coming back, and knew the train would have left without me.

Still, I wanted to find the darn place so that I could regroup and decide how to get home. So I went back the other way. I saw a sign that said “Caltrain Station San Zeno Way” but that didn’t tell me anything because I didn’t know where San Zeno Way was or how to get there. Little did I know that was actually the street that Google wanted me to turn on.

It turns out that what Google indicated in the first place was this:
At Kifer, exit right.
Go to the closest point where you can turn left legally, and make a U-turn.
Turn right on San Zeno Way, just before you arrive again at Lawrence.
Take San Zeno Way to the train tracks (a few blocks), and there you find the station.

Now, as it happens, as a cyclist there is something more clever you can do.
At Kifer, cross the intersection and stop in the pedestrian island.
Dismount your bike, cross the right-turn area, and walk around the little curve in the sidewalk.
Cross the next pedestrian crosswalk to the triangular island. On the other side of the island, get on your bike and start riding, heading in your original direction, but on San Zeno, not Lawrence.

What I ended up doing was giving up, taking Kifer back to Fair Oaks, and then California to downtown Sunnyvale (to get on California I had to run a non-sensored red arrow, so that was an adventure). There, I discovered the public restroom in the parking garage by the train was actually, miraculously, open.

And then, crazy person that I am, I decided to ride all the way home. Even knowing I would be completely soaked when I got back, and probably would only barely beat the next-hour train. Because the cool thing about cycling is that I am basically self-reliant when I do it, even in the dark and rain.

And it was dark and rainy, and people were driving crazily. I had someone turn left in front of me, blatantly, on purpose, when I had the right of way. People were going way too fast for the conditions. I was really glad when I got home. And much more inclined to trust Google Maps rather than my own opinions.

Resumptive pronoun hunt resumed

I haven’t found any new written resumptive pronouns in a while, but I discovered one today on the TinyURL website:

Are you posting something that you don’t want people to know what the URL is because it might give away that it’s an affiliate link?

Well, if you are, I suggest that you not use TinyURL — be honest. But feel free to use a resumptive pronoun while doing so.

Privacy, etc. II

I got some offline feedback on my last entry, with the effect that I rethought a few things. Here are some of the new thoughts:

Anonymity. The way I defined this previously was “being out in public without being notable”. This isn’t a very good definition, because, as Gavin pointed out, anonymity actually has a more technical definition that’s important to preserve, namely: being in public without being known. So works of art can be anonymous, in that they are well-known but no one knows who made them (they are completely unsigned). Or a person can be anonymous by being in disguise or otherwise completely unrecognized. Or information can be made anonymous, “unconnected to an identity”, by purging it of identifying information, like aggregated web search data unconnected to IP address or other similar identifiers.

Gavin suggested that the concept I defined previously could be described as being “unnotable” or “unnoticed”. Perhaps a better word is needed, but having both concepts is certainly more useful.

Another concept that I didn’t define explicitly, but left under the umbrella of privacy, is pseudonymity. This is a very important concept in modern web communications since so much information these days is attached to usernames. When is a pseudonym truly unconnected to a person’s “real identity”? This can be a challenge to determine, and a lot of pseudonymous information is poorly protected because of subtle identifiers in the information or interconnection between pseudonymous information and information filed under a “real name”; it can also become an issue when pseudonym or username is used for multiple sites, services, or types of works. It’s often easier to find a person’s data on the web once you know one of their common usernames than it is when you know their name. Usernames are, by their nature as keys to a specific record, more unique than names.

I also am not that fond of my definition of notability. It doesn’t seem to me to require numbers, but only a certain level of significant interest. However, that’s pretty hard to describe and define.

Finally, Dave wrote me an extensive discussion of yet another concept relating to accessibility: risk.
Risk is what you have when information is accessible to some people, but not others, because there’s a risk of failure of the safeguards that prevent it from being accessible to everyone (loss or deliberate breakage), as well as a risk of legal decision that the safeguards must be removed (search warrants, subpoenas).

Dave sums his discussion up thus: “Heightened accessibility, even if it is well-understood under normal conditions, still creates the prospect of lowered privacy.”

This is, I think, one of the big deals about accessibility that makes people pitch a fit about sudden increases in it.

Privacy, Accessibility, and Notability

As a result of some long-ago and more recent conversations with smart friends of mine, I came up with some interesting thoughts about privacy.

I don’t fully understand the legal umbrella of privacy, but it seems to me that there are a few distinct concepts that it would be useful to introduce into quasi-legal/common-sense discussions of privacy, and potentially to the legal arena too, in the long run.

First, a brief rundown of the concepts, before we get into their interactions and complications.

Privacy. Things that are private are things that you do on private property not visible from a public space, or public spaces where you have “a reasonable expectation of privacy”, and that you don’t speak or publish about in publicly-accessible forums — or if you do, those forums are specifically unconnected to your “real identity”. Also, things are private which are defined by law to be private, but that’s less important here than the nontechnical definition.

Accessibility (or Ease of Access). Things that are accessible are things that are easy for the average person or user to find. This is not a great term because “accessible” also has a technical binary definition related to privacy: if information is not at all accessible, it is private. But bear with me for a while, and suggest a better word if you have one.

Notability. Things that are notable are things that a substantial percentage of people (in the whole population or some subgroup) is interested in knowing about.

Anonymity. Being out in public without being notable.

The complexities of online “privacy” often come up when something besides privacy is involved, namely accessibility or notability. In my old journal, I wrote an entry about Google Street View (and Facebook News Feed, to some extent) in which I used the terms “theoretical privacy” and “actual privacy” rather than using the word “accessibility”, although I did notice, on re-reading the comments, that I start to talk about information being “(easily) accessible”.

GSV and FNF are iconic examples of things that “raised privacy concerns” without actually doing anything to change whether information was private or not. All the information on GSV and FNF was always available (to anyone who set foot in a place, in the case of GSV, and to anyone who previously had access to the info, in the case of FNF). What they did do was make it incredibly easy to find things out that previously had required a lot of effort to find out: what a place looks like at ground level, and what your friends are doing on Facebook. So the information became accessible (in the sense defined above) where before it had been inaccessible.

Notability is implicated in most problems where accessibility becomes an issue. If information is not notable (no one is really interested in knowing it), it doesn’t matter if it is easily accessible or not: no one cares, either way. Dave sent me a link today (which spawned this whole thought process on my part) about a guy whose information suddenly became notable. The guy didn’t mind, but it gave him pause for thought, as I’m sure it would most of us.

In the FNF and GSV cases, nothing became differently notable, just differently (more easily) accessible. This is closer to a form of privacy loss, because it makes something notable easier to find, and if something notable is found, you have much easier access to it. BoingBoing readers had many things to say about it, some of them wondering if we need new laws, or a new area of law, to deal with accessibility of information, since it isn’t covered by traditional privacy law.

Personal conduct in public, combined with YouTube and other video-upload services, illustrates a different set of circumstances. Most of us who live in largish urban areas, most of the time we’re in public, are anonymous: out in public without anyone particularly caring who we are. We feel restricted in our activities by our visibility, but don’t need to worry very much about anyone caring what we’re up to, even if we’re eating cookies when we’re supposed to be on a diet, or smoking when we said we quit. The situation isn’t the same in smaller communities, of course. In small communities, it’s hard to be out in public without being known.

Even in larger communities, recording and uploading a person’s behavior to a video site like YouTube makes it more accessible, but doesn’t necessarily make it more notable (consider all the incredibly boring YouTube videos that no one watches). Likewise, a person’s behavior becoming an object of attention/controversy would make it more notable but not more accessible: you’d still have to actually find the person to see what they were doing. When you get the simultaneous combination of accessibility and notability, you get something like the recent BART shooting video + controversy or the Caltrain cyclist arrest. But another worrying situation is when something goes up earlier, and then later becomes notable (like the guy’s photos as linked above, or like Facebook photos of undergrads drinking which get them in trouble).

How do we live our lives in a world that is increasingly a participatory panopticon? How do we act in public? What do we publicize and what do we keep private when things could become far more accessible or notable in the future than we ever imagined?

Why does everyone love Gmail themes?

I hate them. Why does everyone talking about them on the internet seem to love them, except one guy who twittered that he hates them?

Oh, and someone who thinks the “older version” solves it. No it doesn’t; the older version doesn’t have chat!

Dear Google,

Please give me back my old Gmail (with chat, thanks), where every element blended nicely into every other, instead of my messages being white while my inbox border is blue, and my chat search box being white while the top and edge are blue (or whatever color). And where my chat windows had nicely coordinating icon colors for minimize/pop-out, and blinked a nicely contrasting, if kind of obnoxious, orange.

Your new “default” theme is not the same as the old Gmail and you know it.

And your new themes are almost entirely ugly, and most of them are impractical as well.

Don’t do this to me. Make a theme that really makes it the same as it was before. Please? Pretty please?

By the way, I hate the iGoogle themes too. Can I have my old iGoogle page back while you’re at it?

…Okay, except the Terminal theme is the geekiest, coolest annoying thing ever. You are forgiven. But give me back my normal Gmail anyway.

Hyperbolicity

It’s sort of unfortunate when people who may have a point undermine themselves with hyperbole, hand-wringing, and inaccuracy.

I got pointed via BoingBoing to what should have been an interesting article about the people behind the sources of Facebook’s funding. I’m no particular fan of Facebook, especially because it just seems to get more and more annoying over time, and certainly there are and have been privacy issues with it.

But I can’t take seriously an article that

1) originally connected something created in 1999 with “after 9/11” (there’s a correction on it now, but this isn’t just a misprint kind of error — it’s a fundamental conceptual error of the type that tends to be brought on by a desire to connect 9/11 to everything and/or a desire to see nefarious influence everywhere).

2) spends a lot of time hand-wringing about Facebook being “fundamentally uncreative” and disconnecting us from nature. This is just typical The Children Are Too Connected To Their Computers and What Is The Point stuff. Why use Facebook when there are books to read? he wonders. That’s not the issue. Facebook is completely different from books. If I want to read I read; Facebook is a vehicle for something entirely different — social connection.

3) uses the phrase “anyone can glance at your intimate confessions”. If you’re putting intimate confessions on Facebook (which people do) I must say I don’t have much sympathy for you. Facebook is essentially the public internet — and is basically about sharing and other people seeing what you do — even though there are some ways to limit information distribution. The phrase is used in the context of the ToU’s “if our privacy controls are circumvented we can’t necessarily protect your information” which is certainly unfortunate, but the head bit should be “weak privacy controls” not “anyone can glance at your intimate confessions”.

In general, the article raises the issue of Facebook’s connection to people I would characterize broadly as crazy libertarians, but it also conflates them with neocons (without taking any effort to convince you that it’s a valid connection). It uses rhetoric rather than actual argument to try to convince you that because Facebook was funded by these people and can be interpreted, in a certain light, as an experiment in realizing their world vision, it must be that we are helping them out in reaching their allegedly sinister goals. I wasn’t convinced of either the total sinistry of their goals (they range from the off-the-wall bizarritude of the Singularity to very unpleasant extremist capitalism) or of the fact that Facebook actually serves as either an an experiment or actual realization of them, largely because the points are implied and almost assumed. I suppose maybe for the usual audience of the Guardian that’s enough?

There’s also plenty of hand-wringing about the ad-supported nature of Facebook. I do think that this is a general trend that’s concerning — there are very few online social sites that are not ad-supported, and that basically means that all online community is also an opportunity for people to sell you stuff. But the same is true (as the article’s author indeed alludes to) of newspapers and magazines. Ad-supported media is not new and the amount of “OMG your social relationships are being used as marketing devices” seems excessive to me. I find guerrilla marketing and paid shills who act like sincere product users far more disturbing uses of the social network for advertising.

Maybe I’m too complacent about this, but ad-supported websites of all kinds are de rigeur, and I’m sure most of the ones that have any information about you via login use that information to target the ads (Google does, for example). Facebook does have a lot of people’s personal information, but I’m more concerned about the general availability of the information than about them sharing it with advertisers, honestly. At least I know what advertisers want — my money. The government? Random people? Not so sure about that.

It’s inarguable that you’re giving these people ROI (return on investment) through your use of Facebook, and you may quite legitimately want to avoid doing that. It does squick me a bit for sure, especially since the pointer from BoingBoing was about Facebook hiring Alberto Gonzales’s former Chief of Staff as their general counsel. Yuck. I can’t see that going anywhere good.

But it’s less clear to me that these people’s strange worldview and aims are necessarily furthered by Facebook, or that even if they are, that Facebook doesn’t have other uses that are completely legitimate and irrelevant to that. The guy may have founded PayPal as a way to escape monetary controls (see article for this contention), but most people just use it to send money to friends or people they bought something from, or set up an easy payment system for their website. Likewise he may have invested in Facebook because it instantiates a virtual, borderless world, but most people just use it to talk to their friends and share photos. The article, instead of being a consideration of the implications of the financial relationship (most interestingly through providing potential funding to the guy’s weirder organizations — not that he really needs more money to be effective given how rich he is), is a piece of poorly argued hysteria.

I’m currently having a similar problem with Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which I expected to like. It may be in part that unlike most of the first generation who had the book available, I was initially exposed to history that was being rethought to give more weight to what happened to the groups that weren’t writing all the books. So although some of what he writes about is new to me, much of it isn’t — it doesn’t feel revolutionary.

But even more so, I feel that he retreats from evidence into rhetoric; that he has a definitive agenda into which he’s trying to fit evidence, rather than letting the facts speak for themselves and guide his points. To his credit, he makes that explicit at the beginning of the book — and indeed I almost stopped reading at that point, because I’d been led to believe that it was a history book from a unique perspective, not an extended essay with a particular thesis (“the guys in power actually suck a lot” to put it shortly).

One example is his discussion of Native American social arrangements. While he seems to stick to the facts, there’s a definite gloss of romance over them. They were egalitarian! They cared about the environment! Europeans suck compared to them! He doesn’t, however, address the issue that the progress of farming tends to give rise to greater hierarchy (this is a Jared Diamond idea so it may not have been around when he wrote the book, but it does affect his point), meaning that given their own time, it’s entirely possible that the Native American cultures could have ended up much less egalitarian. And he doesn’t discuss the less savory aspects of various Native American cultures, of which there certainly are some. His evidence about their behavior is valid and I grew up with the new-standard narrative that yes the Europeans were absolutely horrible to Native Americans and that’s putting it lightly, but he tilts it just that little bit too far, undermining his legitimate points.

I need to read more of the book before I make any firm conclusions, but all the chapters have felt like that so far to me. Some very interesting evidence, interesting framework, just pushed a little too far for credibility.

Peeve cubed

I don’t plan to make a habit of this, but I would like to say that I think Language Log has thoroughly worn out its/their welcome on entries that solely constitute being peeved by people being peeved about (various things) about language.

It’s still moderately interesting when they explore the history and usage of the construction that the person is peeved about, but this entry of Pullum’s (don’t go read it, I link only for the record) is content-free except for complaining (sans data) that there is no reason to be peeved about these peeves. This is almost vacuous and is certainly obvious considering the list is so long and includes so many inoffensive words and phrases.

This will be the last time that I peeveblog about peeveblogging about peeves.

Two things that are fantastic

I’ve had kind of a crazy week — maybe kind of a crazy month, really — and two things this week were particularly fantastic:

Dry-farmed Early Girl tomatoes from Ella Bella Farm

These tomatoes are expensive compared to most of the heirlooms and organic tomatoes at the Menlo Park Farmer’s Market — they cost I think $3 or $3.50 a pound. But they are SO WORTH IT. OMG. They are fantastic and amazing and so flavorful and with great structure and they are great alone or in tomato-basil-mozzarella sandwiches and they pep up anything they are in, making a salad into a fun hunt-the-tomatoes experience.

XKCD Store‘s customer service

A while back I ordered the Regular Expressions shirt from the XKCD store and I got it when I got back from Portland, but I hadn’t worn it until this week (everyone at work loves it, incidentally). When I did I found a small hole in the shirt. I wrote to the XKCD store person saying, hey, I found this hole, I don’t think I made it but I can’t be sure, and they said, basically, “No worries! We’ll send you a new shirt right away! Feel free to keep the old one!” How awesome is that? Love.

Wall-E should probably make this list too, because it is really sweet and funny and I liked it a lot, but foodie geek that I am, the other two things actually make me happier. Tomatoes and XKCD FTW.