Meanwhile, How My Day Job Doing Computer Stuff Is Going


Me, today: putting a thing that’s currently a single line used a single time into its own function, because I know from experience this is going to grow into a thing that’s a bunch of pieces doing similar but not identical things and that has to be called from eighteen different spots in the code.

Me, two months from now: trying to figure out why none of my functions ever actually does anything, they just call other functions into this great impassible mangrove swamp of two-line functions.

Looking Back: Being Unaware Of Stuff


If there’s a motif to my writing besides “slightly overresearched nonsense” it’s a love of historical footnotes. These might be the same thing. But sometimes something really thrilling happens. Like, my mind noticing one of those invisible phrases normally used to make some writing longer. So that’s how I got to wondering about how many people you’d expect to know that in the early 60s Disney considered building an amusement park in Saint Louis. This would not be the only time I had cause to write about Saint Louis, either, although I think this might be the only other. If we don’t count this little essay too. I’ve studied logic.

I’m sorry for the formatting on the blockquote in that second article. The theme I’m using right now interacts weirdly with the ‘cite’ tag that I was using to highlight the titles of TV shows. But I don’t want to change it because I feel like, well, it’s a title. Of course it goes in a ‘cite’ tag, what else would a ‘cite’ mean? But I’m not exactly giving a citation of a work there, and in any case it’s being displayed in a way that makes no sense. Now, of course I could hack the style sheets for that page to make things display correctly. But if you learn anything about style sheets it’s that there’s no hacking them to make things display correctly. You fiddle with things to make a box appear in the center of the page and suddenly you get text that doesn’t appear at all on mobile devices; it’s instead carved into the surface of Saturn’s moon Iaepetus. Nobody understands this and the only cure is to remove all the formatting information.

If the above paragraph made no sense to you, don’t worry. You can ask whoever it is in your life knows style sheets and they will agree: it makes no sense, but that’s how style sheets work. Oh, also it’s extremely funny that I correctly identified something which annoys people who do a lot of this particular kind of thing. What is humor writing, indeed, except correctly identifying things that people who know a thing will agree exists?

Is Yoghurt Deliberately Slowing Down Internet TV?


Advertising has always been driven by a pathological hatred of the consumer, on the grounds that if people really, really hate the commercial they’re going to remember that hatred, and therefore buy the product sponsoring it because the name is kind of familiar-ish from somewhere. The theory is incredibly sound, based on longrunning experience like the time the advertisers themselves bought their homes from a guy they knew nothing about except that one time he leapt out of a dark alley and bludgeoned them with a small caribou. They were so impressed they spent decades searching out their assailant and talking him into taking up a career in real estate just so they could buy homes from him. This is how powerful a sales and skeletal impression the caribou made.

Being annoying used to be a scattershot business, advertisers just guessing at what would irritate the viewer, but now that computers make it easy for them to harass web site users into describing their demographic niches exactly (“no, we can’t POSSIBLY set up an account recording what birds you saw in the yard unless we know whether you’re male or female, your age to within five years, and whether you’ve ever been bludgeoned by a caribou with a postgraduate degree”) they can get much more exactingly infuriating. For me, this involves making me sit through yoghurt ads when I’m just trying to watch The Price Is Right online.

Watching a TV show you want online is its own kind of wondrous magic. Just think of a show you meant to watch and then figure out if it’s shown on Netflix, or Hulu, or that other site (there’s another site, right? I keep thinking there’s another site), or if it’s on the web site of the channel that made it, or if it’s on the web site for the channel that didn’t make it and had nothing to do with it but acquired the rights in a merger twenty years ago and stop asking them about it, and then go to the Shows section of that site, and then to the Watch Episodes page, and then find that the page is maybe two links to actual episodes for every eighty links to thirty-second clips from the episode, and curse whoever made that Javascript thing for modern web page design where nothing is a link, and none of the text appears for the first two minutes because they’re using some Extra Slim Sans Everything typeface that’s medium grey on a light grey background, and everything is on sliding rectangular sheets that scroll infinitely down, up, right, and left, and sometimes just wobble forward and back; and scrolling the page one way causes the stuff on the page to move the other so you can never see the stuff that’s cut off because it’s too far to the right or the left for your screen, and clicking on anything causes bubbles filled with boxes to pop up anywhere on the page except where you clicked. To find the episode you mean to see you have to hire a sturdy navigator, trusty boatsman, a load of trade goods and some oxen to lead you to the episode you wanted to see.

But finally you get to your episode, losing only several members of your party to dysentery, sea monsters, and a utopian colony founded in the Carribes, and you can watch your show just after you watch the most annoying commercial that has ever been made. And then watch it again because even though folks have been watching TV shows on web sites for like a decade now, the advertisers figure every web broadcast has only a single advertiser ever, and if you have any questions about that we’re going to give you the same commercial five times in every commercial break, not counting the interactive Flash ad that promises to customize your viewing experience by crashing, freezing up the whole video so you have to start over at the start.

I don’t know why the advertisers figure yoghurt ads are the way to irritate me. I had no strong feelings about yoghurt one way or another. I generally approve of the existence of yoghurt, as something that casually trolls people who spell it the other way and as something to eat in those contexts where society would frown on your eating pudding. But there it is; if I just want to see this contestant, that the connoisseurs of this stuff say is the most cracklingly incompetent The Price Is Right contestant ever to play Bonkers, I have to have yoghurt pitched at me fifteen times. It’s better than a caribou, but it’s a lot more common.

How The 11:00 Conference Call Turns Out


10:45. You set your cell phone on the table. Turn it on. Stare at it anxiously.

10:55. Wonder if there’s enough time to read all of TrekBBS before the call starts.

11:00. Watch entire minute pass without the phone ringing.

11:01. Elation: you have avoided being called into the conference call. Elation gone when you remember they probably haven’t excused you from the call, they’re just saving up to have you be even more in the conference call.

11:04. Realize that you have a need to go to the bathroom more intense and more urgent than any other need you have ever felt in my life. It’s the way you might feel the need to move your foot if it were underneath the rear tire of a truck holding a lump of neutron star, although with less of the mass of three Jupiters pressing down on your foot and more a wondering if you could hear the phone from all the way in the bathroom.

11:10. Wonder if they’ve forgotten you.

11:15. Send e-mail to someone supposed to be in the conference call to see if they’ve forgotten you. Kind of hope that they have, except that might encourage ideas of maybe they don’t need you for non-conference-call things. Wonder if maybe you should’ve been running March Madness pools so they’d want you around for that at least. It’s desperately far from March. It’d look odd if you started talking up next year’s anytime before June 22nd. The conference call will probably be settled by then.

11:25. Phone rings. This call is to warn you the real call is running about a half-hour late but they didn’t want you to worry.

11:32. You’re worried.

11:38. It may be preferable to explode from bathroom-related needs than wait for the call.

11:40. They call. The conference call is starting, except two of the participants have to finish up other calls that have been going since the late Middle Ages. These calls are cherished, handed down from a long line of mid-level management, to be someday handed down to levels of mid-level management not yet imagined. They cannot be discharged or dismissed lightly. You might be on hold. Suddenly you appreciate hold music: listening to something you don’t want to listen to provides reassurance that you are remembered to exist by telephone systems that are not aware you exist.

11:43. Everyone is able to talk with everyone else and would like to explain how glad they are that everyone else is glad to be there, and doing well, and all agree that it’s been far too long since we had a chat like this, and we’re looking forward to the way we’ll smooth out a couple of little issues.

11:46. The conference call enters that condition of being pretty much the same as guiding your parents through updating their digital camera’s device drivers only your boss is listening in.

12:02. The phrase “the button marked SUBMIT in the upper right corner” is proven to be either intolerably vague or to not refer to anything the other people on the call have ever seen.

12:05. logmein is summoned.

12:07. Emergency e-mails to people who thought they were going to lunch already establish that logmein would have worked except we had the password wrong, the capitalization wrong, and some kind of domain thing wrong.

12:18. You apologize for needing to step away for a moment, which they take to mean that you need the bathroom, which you do, but you use the moment to step outside and berate a chipmunk who proves to have a perfectly good understanding of the limits of Ajax-enabled web technology blah blah blah and why yes, it does have to have Internet to work.

12:29. All agree this has been about the greatest and most productive conference call since the idea of communication began and we’ve done enough of it, and hang up before anyone can suggest otherwise.

1:04. You emerge from the curled-up ball of yourself that was underneath the table weeping.

2:45. You finish editing the things you needed to get out of the conference call into a series of four questions, e-mailed to the other main party, with the explanation you need to know which of the two options for each question they want before you can do anything.

Three Days Later, 9:15. The e-mail is returned with the note, “That’s great, exactly that! Thanx for understanding.”

Eight Days After That, 3:23. The suggestion is floated that maybe we just need one more conference call to sort it all out.

Why Programmers Sometimes Punch Computers


So. The project would be really great if it were to make use of the slick, speedy capabilities of GeoPackage. GeoPackage 1 is beautifully documented, with slick interactive demonstrations of every nook and cranny of the system. It depends on OtherPack version 3, produced by a different programming group. OtherPack version 3 is no longer distributed because OtherPack 4 is so very much better. GeoPackage 1 can’t work with OtherPack 4, but, GeoPackage 2, which is lurching towards alpha release, does. GeoPackage 2 doesn’t have any documentation but there are many points it has in common with GeoPackage 1 and it even has a dozen demonstration pages showing how neat it’ll be if it ever finishes working. Oh, but, GeoPackage 2 actually only works with OtherPack 4.0 and 4.1. The OtherPack group just got OtherPack 4.2 released and GeoPackage is sadly incompatible with the new release, although this isn’t worth mentioning anywhere except on a desperate-plea-for-help web site where the original question is accused of being “terribly vague”.

See previous comments about the need to roar indistinctly at the computer.

Problems of Web Site Design


It’s always so tempting to go around and tinker with my web site, because it’s a fine way to stay vaguely busy in 2002. But there’s always questions about what to drop, like, the mailto: links. The only time I’ve eve found a mailto: link that worked was on a functioning gopher: server. I think I’ll replace it with a little form that takes the note, compiles it into a JSON object, and then turns it over to jQuery to pop up an error message, allowing me to claim three more areas of web design expertise.