Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Teaching Coding

I was directed today to this article (http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2012/05/please-dont-learn-to-code.html) that is a response to the sometimes over-the-top calls to get everyone learning to code.  

As a programmer myself (some 15+ years of Windows programming, and 5 years on Mac and iOS), I've seen a lot of code and a lot of programmers.  The issue, as I see it, is I agree that people like Mayor Bloomberg (who said he'd learn to code) don't need to learn to code, but that equally doesn't mean all people should not.

One point that was missed in the article is this viewpoint:
Technology is something that we normally earn; As a kid, you learn to bang in shaped blocks into a sorting-box toy, then you learn to push and pull things, and bolt things together and next thing you know you understand mechanics.  With electronics, we saw an abrupt halt to this "earning an understanding" of the things around us during the 1980's, when all of a sudden we had things in the home like digital watches or VCR's that grandpa couldn't use properly.

The issue I take with this, is kids already are learning a lot of programming without knowing it.  The if-structure syntax is the same as they're already learning by age three:  

"If I'm a good boy and ask nicely, daddy will buy me an ice-cream".
if((Good==YES) && (AskedNicely==YES)){
//Get ice cream code goes here.

Schools say that we should be teaching reading, writing and math.  That example above is just writing the logic out.  If we're teaching them to read and write language, read and write music, read and write math and algebra, why exclude logic?  If you understand logic, you're a hop, skip and a jump from electronics, software, medicine, physics, etc. 

As I've always said to lay-people:  Programmers basically do what recipe writers once did.  We work out the ingredients, and the steps and if you follow the instructions, you'll get the same result each time on the computer as a cook does with their food.

Yes, the article was correct about writing less code (and preferably none), but the skills you pick up are useful elsewhere and being taught to read and write logic is really the goal, but that's not mentioned in the article.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Doing what's right, versus doing what you can.

As you know, I have a little ongoing situation with Bell Canada, that started when I questioned why Yellow Pages (who didn't have my permission to use my data) wouldn't remove my info.

Recapping the situation thus far, having given out my information without my consent, Bell finally agreed to remove it from the one place I asked whilst waiving the previous $2/mo fee that they originally wanted for the privilege.

Last night, a representative of Bell Canada phoned me.  The conversation basically went like this:
Me) Can you please tell me who else you leaked my info to?
Bell) No.
Me) Why not?
Bell) Because the CRTC says that we're allowed to give out your information to third parties.
Me)  So, if a customer is explicitly requesting to know who you gave my info to, your company line is that a customer's request for privacy comes second place to the permission from the CRTC to give that information out?
Bell)  Yes.

At this point, I advised Bell that they're probably digging themselves into a $20,000/month reduction in revenue when I subsequently advise everyone I have influence over to drop Bell Canada as a service provider.  As you can guess, at this point it's becoming a matter of principal for me.  Bell has had two opportunities to do the right thing and so far have made a hash of both opportunities.

The moral stance that "doing what they can" trumps "doing what's right" is an abomination of customer service.  How this plays out next is in the hands of Bell, however, the damage to their reputation so far is already a done deal.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Head Scratching

Sometimes you see something that you have to scratch your head at.

As most web designers know, you should never allow the contents of your server directories to be listed.  Bell Canada has exposed a number of their servers to Google's indexing spider, and a similar thing has been done by Yellow Pages.

Take this example customer of Yellow Pages, for instance:

Now, that customer of Yellow Pages likely paid YPG to create it.  Both the customer and YPG would probably not want someone coming along and grabbing the site source code for free, right?  If that's the case, then why is a copy of that website placed at Yellow Pages' WSS (Web Site Solutions) division, which then left the same stable door open?

That same website (and many many others) are all available to be downloaded in source form from here, which is also at Yellow Pages. 

This common sense oversight just doesn't make sense.

Burning Haystacks To Find The Needle

I have a phone number with Bell Canada.  Given the proliferation of cold calls that we get at our house despite being on the DNCL, and given I have a home-based business, I decided to do a little poking around and see where all the sources of my information could be slurped from.

The first place I looked was Canada411.ca, which is owned by Yellow Pages Group (YPG).  Their site says that to be removed you need to go to the source (in this case Bell) and ask them to initiate this.  So I checked this with Bell.

Now, remember the school playground antics where the school bully comes over and does something you don't want until they extort something from you, like punching you until such time as you hand over your lunch money?  Bell has an identical routine where it hands out your phone number to all and sundry without telling you whom it's given it to, then says that to delist, you must hand over $2/month to Bell for it to stop.

Over 22 hours since I raised this with Bell, they've not resolved it.  So I went to Yellow Pages and asked them how much they paid Bell for my details.  They wouldn't answer the question, but they did say "YPG is contracted to make these numbers available on behalf of telcos in Canada.".  

So if YPG are contracted, the question is how much is that contract worth for my details?

Yellow Pages stated that it is Bell's issue to request, even though they have me in their database.  I refuse to be extorted in order to get my info out of the Yellow Pages system.  Bell gets a cool 4-figures from my house each year and it wants to haggle over $24?

Now, if there's one thing I've learned with bureaucratic red tape in large corporations, sometimes when you can't find the needle in the haystack, it's easier to just burn the haystack.

More to come.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Thoughts on the EAS hack

Those who know me well, know I take a keen interest in radio systems and public warning systems.  When FEMA instigated the EAS (Emergency Alert System) test on 9th November 2011, this brought to conclusion a period of frantic programming for me, as I'd been part of a team re-writing the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) that handled the EAS test for a well know national broadcaster in the US.

When I first heard that an "EAS hack" had occurred in Montana leading to a "dead bodies rising" transmission, I thought it was probably just a marketing stunt for something zombie related.  Over the past few days, it has become apparent that this isn't the case.

This has a big implication:  The way the message was transmitted is you have a starting point, let's call him "P" (the President), and P says "I have a message, send it nationwide". P transmits to FEMA and they send to other people down the chain, and the message eventually hits the broadcasters.  In the case of radio, this runs like this:

You have a transmitter that sends out the station signal, and you have an EAS hardware box that listens to other nearby stations.  When the box sees a message, it has instructions to relay this on the transmitter so that other stations can pick this up.  These are the "P1" stations, or "Local Primary", which usually means the big broadcasters.  Smaller independent stations ("P2" or "Local Secondary") are listening to the P1's.  Whilst the P1's have the capability to broadcast the emergency to the public, often these P2's are just a transmitter in a field with no human's, so they broadcast a message that says "please tune to [insert P1 here]".  Eventually, an "End of transmission" message trickles down the same waterfall and everyone goes back to normal broadcast mode.

The implications that someone hacked at a local primary level is worrying, as you should in theory be able to do the same at the national level as there's no encryption.  This system was built a long time ago, and in theory nobody in the public domain should know how to operate or interface with it.

This needs fixing immediately.   

Monday, February 11, 2013

The centre of the Horse Meat scandal

The horse meat scandal is something that I've stayed away from commenting properly on until now.  The problem has a number of issues and flaws though, that make it interesting to watch.

First, there's the issue of trust. If there's horse meat in a product, this should be declared.  Everyone agrees to at least that much of the situation.  From here, it gets murky.

Ask anyone what is in a Free Range, Hand-Reared, 100% Angus Beef Burger and you'd expect the answer to be ONLY beef.  Ask any sane person what's in a value burger that comes in packs of 8 costing less than a pint of beer, and you'll hear a whole bunch more things that aren't on the label either.

So where's the problem if the public psyche already holds "value" burgers at some meat threshold that's not much higher than a common sausage?  It definitely has raised awareness that meat is not always what you think it is, but that's not the real issue here.  

The issue is the trust problem at the top of this post - It's not the meat.  

In the US, they would never have this issue.  Meat has more checks and balances applied to it than a multinational bank would.  The same doesn't apply in Europe.  If you don't have trust in your food source, you can go source it somewhere else.  This is understood in the USA and Canada.  In Europe, nobody has a clue where their meat comes from in the first place, but they all trust their governments (especially since the BSE scandal) to give them what they're being told it is.  

And THAT is what is at the crux of the issue.  

This trust should be sacrosanct, and now we find that not only was the eye off the ball, but officials were not even watching the correct game.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Differences In British vs North American TV

I ran across this blog post over the past weekend, where someone from North America was in the UK and offering up what they had learned in their short period of time they've been there.  I got to point number five, which says this:
5) British free tv sucks *ss period. At least it is free rubbish!! :p
Naturally, I disagree. Rather than just offering up a counter-assertion that "it's not free" and "doesn't suck", I'll try to explain why.   

First, I'll quickly address the quantitative bit, then I'll move on to the main point of this article.  Put simply, TV in the UK is not free.  You must pay a license fee for each property that has a TV. The UK is patrolled by "TV Detector Vans", and you're fined heavily if you're watching a TV without a valid license.  Currently, a license costs £145.50 for a year, and failure to have one costs £1,000.  

So that puts that bit to bed.  Now on to the real point of this article.

The assertion that "British free TV sucks *ass period" is a bold statement - but I know where the author was coming from, because as a British person in North America, I find the same problem here but in reverse.

Having spent 14 years here, I think I also know why; and it's a cultural thing.

TV in North America seems to follow a cycle like this:

  • Find a new show format.
  • When you find one that works, cookie-cutter it.
  • After you've cookie-cuttered it, move it to a new location, throw in different actors, and apply the same cookie-cutter.
For instance, guess this show:
  1. A body is found by a dog-walker/rambler/playing kids/etc.
  2. The next 30 minutes is spent telling you how that person ended up there.
  3. 5 minutes is spent alluding to the lead male character's family problems at home.
  4. 5 minutes is spent alluding to the lead female character's torment in her job or private life.
Guessed yet?  That's CSI New York.  It's also CSI Miami.  It's also CSI Las Vegas.  It's also Criminal Minds.  ...And Criminal Minds:Suspect Behaviour.  And Hawaii Five-O.  And if you introduce a court room to the format, you have Law & Order. And Law & Order SVU. And Law & Order UK... and... do you get the point?  

This cookie-cutter approach isn't just an American thing, though.  The British do it too:  Take a bunch of everyday people living everyday lives and put them in London and you have Eastenders.  Put them in Liverpool and you Brookside.  Put them near Manchester and you have Coronation Street.   Both of these formats are found on the other sides of the Atlantic.  The predictable Procedural Policing dramas are in the UK, and even Coronation Street is broadcast in North America, believe it or not!  

But there's a problem; Eastenders or Brookside would bore the pants (trousers in English) off the average North American.  That type of program would only be broadcast in North America [and be accepted] if you add canned laughter to it and turned it into a sitcom.  

The same happens the other way - with the exception of Downton Abbey, there's hardly any drama here.  All "drama" here is actually "Police Procedural" in different disguises.  It's Castle.  The Mentalist.  Bones.  Elementary.  NCIS.  Fringe.  

And so the list goes on.  

If you took something that was really huge in North America, like "Friends" for instance, and removed the canned laughter and bad jokes, you're left with a bunch of people milling about between their apartment and the coffee shop.  That would give Coronation Street (a bunch of people milling about between their living rooms and the pub) a run for it's money any day. 

It's because of this drought in proper drama that everyone knows that as soon as they air "Mr Selfridge" over here, it'll be as big a hit as a bottle of beer in the desert.

Despite all this, though, it's hardly ever acknowledged where the largely compatible shows that we see in both the UK and America/Canada come from:  Reality TV and Game Shows.

The true heroes in this arena is concerned is the company "Endemol" from the Netherlands, who put out most of the "transatlantic spanning" content.  Whether it's game shows like Deal or No Deal, 1 vs 100, Fear Factor, etc, or shows like The Voice, Big Brother, etc.

There's a certain irony in that the shows we see most of in North America and the UK simultaneously, started in neither.