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A blog experiment by Brad Mills.

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Trust in the digital era

Go ahead. Click it, I dare you.

I see this and similar widgets on a lot of websites. Being a guy who codes websites here and there, I can kind of guess what it does and how it works, and I've in fact written code to work with this kind of widget before. I have no agenda beyond making things easier for the end user and hopefully reducing the number of errors I'll need to deal with on the back-end later. However, I'm going to surmise that not every website — and perhaps even not every web developer — is operating with a clean agenda.

That's not to say all of them are dirty, but have no doubt that some of them are, and beyond what's shown on your screen (and perhaps not even then), you truly have no idea what happens to any of your information.

For example... just about every monthly household bill I have is automated, and every month, the companies needing to collect a payment from me tap into my bank account and deduct the amounts due. I am personally not involved in these transactions. My involvement ended when I checked a box on my screen, years and years and years ago, that said "I agree to these terms" or something like that. There were probably several paragraphs of text I agreed to, but I don't remember what they were... probably something like "I authorize Company XYZ to automatically deduct payments from my bank account on a regular basis" and a bunch of legal language put in there by lawyers so their egos and heads are all properly inflated.

So in order for this automated magic to work properly, each company needs the following:

  • My account number with said company (which they already have, since I'm already their customer)
  • The amount due (again, which they already have, since they're basically billing it to me)
  • My bank's routing number (available by lookup, though they'd have to know where I bank, so I just provide that number)
  • My account number at my bank (which I provide)
  • My checkmark in a box, agreeing to basically get out of the way and let the magic happen

I put most of those checkmarks in place in the early 2000s (the "aughts" if you will). In the years since, every company providing service to my house has changed hands at least once, some of them multiple times. There hasn't been a single billing interruption in that time. That means the companies which are now deducting money from me are not the ones I authorized to do so way back when Collective Soul was still relevant. That little checkbox I clicked on my screen has carried forward over the years, across multiple billing departments and companies and no doubt computer system and software upgrades, along with my bank routing number and bank account number.

Now I'm sure that, when the information was transferred from the acquired company to the acquiring one, there were thousands upon thousands upon thousands of checkmarks and routing numbers to move over. And it's not like there was a little man wearing a bowler hat running over with a shoebox filled with these things. "Here you go, here are all the checkmarks and routing numbers. Mr. Mills is in here somewhere, I'm sure!" as he tips his hat to the billing department. No, this was also part of an automated thing, hopefully encrypted, sent out over a wire and dropped into the appropriate place in the acquiring company's computers.

There's a lot of trust going on here, and that's where I'm going with this. Over time, we're putting more and more faith into the computer systems we use. Some of these are used to make our lives easier... like making automated payments for household bills, for example. My grandparents used to drive around all over town and pay bills in person, my parents sat down and mailed out checks each month, and I checked a box on a screen umpteen years ago and said "I trust you, you guys got this, I'm out." In exchange for this trust relationship, I get uninterrupted water and electricity and gas, and hours of my time are freed up each month.

So what if it's not such a clear relationship? Like... let's say installing an app on your phone. And then creating an account with it, and allowing all the permissions it asks for (like access to your email address, contacts, phone number and location). And then signing in, clicking the "remember me" box so you don't have to keep track of your account information, and trying whatever it's designed for. And then, deciding you don't like it, and deleting it. Great, so... did that also delete your account? How about your email address? How about your location? Did the app forget you? If you reinstall it again later, will it remember that it was remembered, and just sign you back in?

How can you know?

I don't have any answers. Further, my voice in this will certainly be drowned out in the constant roar of information flowing around us each and every day. But, I submit we are making a lot of assumptions about the software we interact with, and while a lot of those assumptions are ok to make, there's an incredibly good possibility that it's not always ok to make that leap of faith.

And there's no way to know when it is and when it isn't.

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Sources say...

This is probably going to put me on a list. Maybe I'm already on one.

In Mr. Trump's tweet from 2012, "an extremely credible source" told him about a fraudulent birth certificate. I totally understand the reasoning for protecting your source if the information is particularly incendiary. But you know, saying "I have a piece of secret information, hee-hee-hee" on a public forum like Twitter defeats the purpose.

Fast forward five years later. Linguistically, passive voice is a shady tactic used to blur responsibility. Mr. Trump acknowledges this and uses it to smear the media, adding that "fake news" is the enemy.

Here's a dumb question on my part: could the 2012 tweet with its unnamed (but "extremely credible") source also be considered "fake news" under the exact same argument?

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Flood warnings

About eleven months ago, West Virginia experienced one of the worst floods in its known history. I drove around on the morning the rivers crested and took lots of pictures. I debated putting them up here but changed my mind — mainly because there was already lots of coverage of the event, and I didn't feel like adding to what seemed like "Oh, the humanity" horror reporting. People didn't need to see even more of it.

Ok, so quite awhile later, after the worst has ended, here's a picture from the WV Flood of 2016.

WV Flood of 2016

I've been watching the rain come down for the last few days and have once again heard the occasional "braap!... braap!... braap!" emergency alert sound coming from my phone. I remember in the days and hours before the flood, my phone was going off constantly, almost to the point where it was easier to ignore. A flood of information, we could say. But I guess it's safe to say there was plenty of warning.

Meanwhile, there are lots of reports about Antarctica in the news this year. Like this article from the renowned Yale University about ice caps melting rapidly on Greenland and Antarctica and a potential six-foot rise in the world's sea levels as a result. Or this one from ABC News, about how Antarctica is melting faster than expected. Or how about the New York Times article about the giant crack on the Larsen C ice shelf, which — if it becomes a complete break — would release an iceberg larger than Delaware into the sea. If that's not scary enough, moss is growing on Antarctica three times faster than normal.

I know, this is all "fake news" and hysterics. But is it? If one looks back in history, across numerous human cultures, one finds there is a pretty common tale of a great deluge. I guess the Noah story is most well-known, but there are others, and they each hint very strongly that the floodwaters came in a matter of days. Not centuries... not years... days. There are even Native American flood stories — pretty far-removed from the ones in the Old Testament.

Could there be another flood? And not just the one we had in West Virginia last summer — a huge one? Could it happen in a matter of days instead of years? Could we be seeing the warning signs of it now, in the collapsing ice shelves, or in the records and stories of our ancestors?

The forecast for tomorrow: rain.

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No comment

I've turned commenting off here. It's been that way for about six months. I got a couple of emails about that, but I'm leaving them off for the foreseeable future. There's been a declining number of comments over time, and while there were plenty of additions to the conversation, there was also a nontrivial amount of spam to deal with, plus — let's face it — eight years later, there are now other bigger sites where the "conversations" are happening.

Jason Kottke addresses this much better than I.

I could easily tie this site into one of the "big dogs" to get a stream of commentary going again... like Facebook or Disqus or whatever. I'm not going to do that. First, this is an independent site (fiercely!) and I'm not interested in orbiting those stars. Second, what would be the point. If you're running a site with other peoples' widgets and such all over it sending tracking data and who knows what else hither and yon, at some point you have to admit that it's no longer your site, and you're really just a shill for the big guys. And third, with the levels of vitriol on the Internet these days, I really don't want to be the thought police, especially on a site I'm paying money to run.

Last... it's kind of a pain in the ass, right? I mean, you have to put in your name, and an email address, and then type out a bunch of stuff, and pass a captcha, and then wait and see if the comment gets approved, and on and on and on. Who needs it? Besides, I think all people really want to do is give a thumbs up or thumbs down.

Hence, in lieu of a proper commenting system, I give you anonymous voting. Two buttons, up and down, and not tied to any platform anywhere. They don't get shared to all your friends, they don't track your movements across the web, they don't do anything except let you give my words a yay or nay without telling me who you are or anything else about you. That's it.

And I promise one day I'll write about something worth your upvote.

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In which we barely organize Taco Friday for Administrative Professionals Week

Over the years, Secretaries' Day has changed into Administrative Professionals' Day and — apparently quite recently — Administrative Professionals' Week. I am not either of those and neither are many of the people I work with. July 28 (the last Friday in July), however, is Sysadmin Day... and September 13 is Programmers' Day. I'm not sure which of those I am, dipping often enough into both those pools to swim in either. Or both. Especially if there's cake or lunch involved on those days.

After some flailing about with cards and gift certificates or some shit, somebody at my work decided since there was a whole week dedicated to our administrative staff, then maybe we should aim for something a little... well, meatier, I guess. Granted, we still did the card and gift certificate route, but it felt like we were just phoning it in — and that's just not cool. So, Taco Friday came into existence.

If you think this happened in any kind of organized fashion, you'd be wrong.

I heard a couple of coworkers whispering about this late on Thursday afternoon, but the only conversation I heard seemed to be along the lines of "this is a secret, we can't tell any of the secretaries." So naturally I was intrigued. Tensions are high right now and there's talk of cuts, cuts, cuts, because Reasons™, and it sounded like the axe was about to start swinging. After joining in, I finally learned about Taco Friday. Bear in mind... this was Thursday afternoon, and there was nothing as official as an email or anything beyond rumors and whisperings in cubicles.

Finally, an email got to me about half an hour before I was leaving for the day. (The use of passive voice here is intentional. If the email could have quietly slumped into the room with a sigh, it probably would have.) The gist was this: We're doing Taco Friday, it's going to be a surprise, here's a link to a shared spreadsheet where you can sign up to bring something. Well, let's see how this has panned out, I thought, and clicked the link. Only two items had absolutely zero takers:

  • Taco meat
  • Chicken

Dammit.

The few of us who got this final email gathered together to compare notes, and as we looked at the email together, we found that it was originally sent out on Monday, first forwarded to someone in our group on Wednesday, and finally began circulating properly earlier in the day on Thursday. Again, I'm going to stress: this was on Thursday, the day immediately before Taco Friday, and about five or six of us didn't get it until thirty minutes before quitting time. And, it looked like at least some of us would be forced into shopping and cooking for this event at the last minute. After some discussion, one of our little clique finally said, "I guess I can cook. Everybody give me some money for the meat and I'll look for my Crock Pot when I get home." Just for the record, she's in the middle of moving — though really, we're all slammed.

Despite the poor planning, everything went smoothly, and the surprise was kept intact. We think. And now for the twist and lesson. I left for a meeting on Friday, and when I got back to my desk, there were two birthday cards there with neatly printed lists of checked-off names paperclipped to them along with these brief instructions: "Sign and check yourself off. Pass along to someone who isn't checked. Return to _____ when everyone has signed." The names of the birthday folks were redacted, one from each card, as they obviously didn't need to sign their own cards. For each one, the birthdate was listed... both are in mid-May, a couple of weeks out. And the name in the blank, the person collecting the cards after they were finished? One of the administrative staff we were celebrating.

This level of organization and efficiency is why. Had one of them been involved in the planning, no doubt we would have had a full mariachi band.

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Occam's razor

I've been running this site for almost eight years. There's a lengthy gap from the middle of 2013 through late 2014, and there have been fewer posts recently versus in its heyday. But, within the last few weeks, I got an SSL certificate, I added some much-needed navigation to the mobile version, and I renewed the domain for another year... so I guess it's still around, in a sense.

About that navigation. There's a (slowly) growing amount of content here, and I needed a way to present it without taking up a lot of room on a small mobile screen. At the same time, I wanted it to be pretty comprehensive and able to grow. After looking around at various hamburger menus / JavaScript monstrosities, I decided on a couple of standard html <select> blocks with <optgroup> sections for years in the month by month archives. It renders consistently, it doesn't take up a lot of real estate, and it can grow as long as needed. Surrounding this new section is a splash of medium green to match the sidebar I have in the desktop version of the site.

It's not the sexiest thing in the world, and it's very 1997, but it works extremely well, and it gets the job done.

Sometimes the simplest solution is the best.

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