Monday, July 21, 2008

I Smell Bogus Emails

I've become well-known at the office as the guy who, upon receiving one of those forwarded emails from a co-worker, will immediately go hit up Snopes to find out if it's true. Of course, one might question the reliability of Snopes itself, but in all seriousness, if it's been in a few hundred inboxen and the truth of the matter can be found, Snopes will find it.

It astounds me that anyone could get a few of these emails and not start to develop a healthy case of cynicism about what shows up in their inbox. Not long ago, I heard a co-worker (who will remain unnamed to protect the guilty) ranting about how members of Congress have a taxpayer-funded pension system that pays a full cost-of-living adjusted salary for the rest of their lives, and that they don't have to pay into Social Security. Knowing Congress, people readily believe this, but it's bunk. He'd never admit it if he was confronted directly, but in a little, unexamined part of his brain, he's saying, “I know it's true! I read it on the Internet!”

So I'm here to help. I have a simple, straightforward rule that correctly determines whether or not a personal email is bogus 99% of the time—way better than weather forecasters or stock market analysts. Here it is:

If an email's subject line starts with “FW:”, it is bogus.

I am completely serious. Follow that rule, and you'll be right so often that in many peoples' minds it will border on the supernatural. But if that person you're thinking of right now that just can't help but hit the forward button would like a bit more detail, here are some additional things to check:

  • Does Snopes say it's a hoax? I've occasionally ran into something that wasn't already covered by Snopes, but usually they've already done the grunt work, and they always provide authoritative sources.
  • Does the message urge you to forward it to everyone you know? This is the whole point of the hoax. Why legitimate messages are less likely to do this is explained further on.
  • Does the email claim that someone can tell if you forward it? There is no reliable way to count the number of people to which you forward a message, and nobody's going to pay anybody else because you forwarded it. Bill Gates didn't get rich by throwing money away, so you can bet he isn't going to be sending you a check because you spammed your entire address book. The Red Cross isn't going to donate money for a sick child because you forward an email, either, even if they could tell that you did. Charitable organizations like the Red Cross receive donations.
  • Does the message properly cite sources? Political and virus emails, in particular, are notorious for spewing facts and not backing them up with reliable sources. That doesn't mean just name-dropping, it means giving you a link to the official web site of the source where you can confirm the information for yourself.
  • Is the original author anonymous? If someone stands by their claims, they put their name to it.
  • Is the (alleged) original author famous? Famous people don't do these things by email because email isn't authoritative. They put what they want to say on their web site. So if you get an email that says that political candidate A said X and Y about political candidate B, you can almost guarantee that candidate A has already posted something on their web site refuting it. An email can come from anywhere, but if candidate A's web site says something, then candidate A is saying it. That doesn't mean candidate A isn't deluded or lying, but at least you can confirm the source. Besides, candidate honesty is a whole separate issue.
  • Is the email vague on the specifics (names, dates, places)? It may seem like a waste of time to you and me, but hoax emails don't just materialize from the ether. Someone decided that they had time to sit down and write it. However, they usually don't take the time to make the story believable beyond the first glance. Authoritative stories will give names for those involved, say when and where the described events happened.
  • Does the email stress that its contents are “completely true,” “perfectly legal” or “not a hoax?” If they have to say it, odds are, it's a lie.
  • Does the message claim to give information that not many people know, or that some organization doesn't want you to have? This is just a hook to get you to believe. After all, who doesn't like to be “in the know?”
  • Is the message unprofessionally written? Hoax authors are notoriously bad writers. If you see spelling errors, ALL CAPS, or multiple question/exclamation marks in a row, it's a hoax.
  • Does the message warn you about an unusual way to die, become injured or contract a horrible disease, or give an unorthodox solution to preventing it? Fear of death and pain are strong motivators, and are therefore effective ways to get people to buy in on what you're saying. You may have heard of the practitioners of this method in the real world; they're known as quacks.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Prince of Persia Trailer

Screenshot from the new Prince of Persia game

Just saw the new trailer for the latest Prince of Persia game. It's so pretty... (drool) I hope they go for a game more like Sands of Time, which was charming and thoroughly delightful, and less like their subsequent PoP games, where they decided to go for the M rating to attract the critical teenage male segment of the market.

Any other Firefox users finding that the official PoP site (the second link above) crashes their browser? Maybe it's an extension I have installed.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Talk to the Hand

My daughter has learned a fair bit of sign language to help her overcome the communication barrier due to her autism. By itself, spoken words give only one sensory “bridge” between the word and the concept; signing gives her three: auditory, visual and kinetic. It seems to be (slowly) working, as the few words she does say vocally are the ones that she's been signing the longest.

Just like spoken languages, you encounter local variations in ASL. It's been kind of frustrating to look up signs on the Internet and discover different sites teaching different signs for the same concept in ASL. Anyway, after some searching I ran into, which at least tries to document the variations and give you an idea of what's the most common.

Anyway, below are some signs my daughter knows. She doesn't always spontaneously make the signs when she wants something, but she will usually make them if you say the word or show her the corresponding object. Try them out on her the next time you see her!

  • Mom and Dad (She tends to just point at the top of her head for “Dad.”)
  • Baby (She rocks her whole body back and forth instead of just her arms.)
  • All done
  • Milk (Easy: Think of squeezing a cow's udder.)
  • Eat
  • Drink
  • Cup
  • Cereal
  • Water (She loves this sign. If she makes it, it's not because she's thirsty. It means she wants you to turn on the faucet so she can play with the water!)
  • Potty (Not potty trained yet, but she understands the sign.)
  • Sleep
  • Please
  • Thank you (Still working on this one!)
  • Help
  • Stop (She doesn't really understand this as a command yet. Signing “stop” and “go” is mostly a game at this point.)
  • Go
  • More (We're teaching her to use this one in conjunction with “Please.”)
  • Cat
  • Dog (Multiple variations on this one; the one she knows is slapping the thigh then snapping, although she doesn't actually snap.)
  • Bird
  • Duck (She just uses the first two fingers and the thumb.)
  • Cow

Friday, July 11, 2008

Calvin and Hobbes

Picture of Bill Watterson

The funnies just aren't the same after Bill Watterson took his ball and went home. The reclusive artist's strip Calvin and Hobbes, along with Bill Amend's FoxTrot and Gary Larson's The Far Side (who have also ceased their comics, except for FoxTrot's Sundays), formed a trio of comics page kings that no other strip could rival. Not a day went by that I didn't get my Calvin fix.

At the end of 1995, Bill Watterson decided he was done. Who could blame him? Given his history of contention with newspaper editors regarding the Sunday format, I'd imagine he would have found it liberating to no longer have the deadlines and restrictions that come with drawing a daily comic strip. While he wasn't nearly as wealthy as he might have been if he was not vehemently opposed to the marketing of his characters, the wide distribution of his strip probably ensured that he would have little worry about money. He'd been drawing the comic for 10 years at that point, so why not end on a high note?

Had Watterson started his strip 20 years later, it might have been a webcomic. His dislike for working under the rules of the syndicate and the restrictions of the comics page format would make web publication a natural fit for him. The only problem would have been his unwillingness to license the characters. It's hard enough for a webcomic to make it even with an online store selling related merchandise. Perhaps it would still have been popular enough online that sales of books alone would have sustained it, but it'd still have been pretty dicey.

It would be nice if Bill Watterson would consider creating a webcomic. He could bring back Calvin and Hobbes, or not. He could do full color every day, use whatever layout suited his purpose, and generally do things that would make a newspaper editor blow a gasket. Having already secured his financial situation, he wouldn't even have to worry about whether he was making money, either.

I don't think it's going to happen though. In fact, I doubt Watterson even has a computer. But if he does and on the off chance that he happens to read this (or someone prints it out and gives it to him), I'd just want him to know that I loved Calvin and Hobbes, and I'd love to see what he could do with an infinitely large, 32-bit color canvas.

Thursday, July 3, 2008


My 2½-year-old daughter stands in front of me, arms stretched out from her sides. “Huuh,” she says.

“Huuh” is special. A “huuh” is a hug, and it's one of the few things she actually asks for. In fact, it's one of the few things she can express verbally, because my little girl, standing there with her arms stretched out for a hug, is autistic.

We've suspected something like this for a while. We'd become increasingly concerned about her reluctance to talk, as well as other behavior, such as not responding well to her own name, some compulsive/ritualistic behavior and selectivity about food. Our pediatrician and a speech therapist have evaluated her, and have come to the consensus that she is mildly autistic. I know that the term mildly ought to be comforting, but it's hard to feel that way right now.

To some extent, I understand what she will have to deal with as she grows, having myself grown up with attention-deficit disorder. The frustration of struggling with things that come so easily to others is something to which I can definitely relate. To this day, I must take extraordinary measures to remember things like appointments or tasks, or to make sure that I don't lose things. If I am given a task, I am strongly inclined to just do it right then and there, because I know that the odds are high that I will otherwise forget it. For about a year when we moved into our new home, I had to maintain a ritual of tethering my keys and wallet to my belt until it became a habit to always put them back in my pockets instead of just leaving them in some random place. It's upsetting to see other people able to do these things with far less effort.

Fortunately, the prognosis for our daughter seems fairly good. She doesn't talk much, but she does say a few words, and she's slowly learning more. She also understands some sign language, and there are a number of common autism difficulties that are mild or absent in her. Nothing is certain at this point, but it seems that, despite some struggles, she will likely be able to live a relatively normal life, much like myself.

I look at my little girl, and I can tell there are thoughts and feelings trapped in that little head that she wants to tell me. I want to come home and have her tell me about what she ate that day, or the funny thing that Elmo did on Sesame Street, or the game that she played with Mommy. It may be some time before that happens.

But what she can tell me is, “I love you.” She stands in front of me, stretches out her arms, and says “Huuh.”

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Bug Free!

I write code for a living, so the bug list is part of my daily life. Every day, I have a list that stares me in the face, reminding me of things that just aren't right. It's kind of like having a list of all your flaws in front of you every day. Some people might find that motivating, but the longer the list gets, the less motivating it seems.

The list tends to get very long when you're most of the way through coding a software release. It swells like a stream in late spring, full of the runoff of coding new features before you've had the opportunity to work out the bugs yet. Then the features are complete, and it's time to start hacking away at that list.

Of course, there are bugs and there are bugs. Most bugs are too important to allow the release to go out while they're still present. However, all software of any significance has bugs. To think otherwise would be like expecting gymnasts never to stumble. And sometimes you know about a minor issue, but for one reason or another the decision is made to release anyway. Usually, it's because the bug only inconveniences ourselves, not our customers, and the benefit of releasing outweighs the problems caused by the bug. But the bug sits on the list, waiting to be fixed.

The end of the release, when the bugs are supposed to get fixed, is often the time that someone decides to say, “Hey, did you guys know that Customer X needs Feature Y?” And so I get tasked on a new feature instead, and those annoying minor bugs continue to sit at the bottom of my list.

Not today, though! After weeks of hard work, today I can look at my list and see... no bugs! Of course, we're about to go into another round of testing, so we'll see how long that lasts.

Making some changes on the blog, trying out a different template and hosting options. Please excuse any template weirdness while I work it out.