Wall Street on the Tundra – What the hell happened to Iceland ?

Nice article in Vanity Fair about the complete bankruptcy of Iceland. Basically, fishermen became currency traders overnight without so much as a single day’s training. The whole country went finance-mad.

In just three or four years an entirely new way of economic life had been grafted onto the side of this stable, collectivist society, and the graft had overwhelmed the host. […] In the end, Icelanders amassed debts amounting to 850 percent of their G.D.P. (The debt-drowned United States has reached just 350 percent.)

Seven pages long but fascinating.

Have you ever legalized Marijuana ?

There’s an excellent, insightful and very funny article by Steve Yegge on his blog about complexity. Well worth a read. While clearly in favour of legalizing marijuana, Steve suggests that next time anyone actually suggests legalizing marijuana they should have to answer at least these preliminary questions first :
  • Is it legal to drink alcohol in a TV commercial? No? OK, what about marijuana, then? Can you smoke it in a commercial? Can you SHOW it? Can you talk about it? Can you show marijuana smoke at a party, without anyone actually being seen smoking it? Can you recommend its use to children under the age of 9? What exactly are the laws going to be around advertising and marijuana?
  • Do we let everyone out of prison who was incarcerated for possession and/or sale of marijuana? If not, then what do we tell them when they start rioting? If so, what do we do with them? Do we subsidize halfway houses? Do we give them their pot back? How much pot, exactly, do they need to have possessed in order to effect their judicial reversal and subsequent amnesty? A bud? An ounce? A cargo ship full?
  • Is it legal to sell, or just possess? If the latter, then how do we integrate the illegality of selling it into the advertising campaigns that tell us it’s legal to own it?
  • If it’s legal to sell it, WHO can sell it? Who can they sell it to? Where can they sell it? Where can they purchase it? Are we simply going to relax all the border laws, all the policies, all the local, state and federal laws and statutes that govern how we prioritize policing it? All at once? Is there a grandfather clause? On what _exact_ date, GMT, does it become legal, and what happens to pending litigation at that time?
  • Are we going to license it? Like state alcohol liquor licenses, of which there are a fixed number? What department does the licensing? How do you regulate it? Who inspects the premises looking for license violations, and how often? What, exactly, are they looking for?
  • Is it OK to smoke marijuana at home? At work? In a restaurant? In a designated Pot Bar? On the street? Can you pull out a seventeen-foot-long water bong and take a big hit in the middle of a shopping mall, and ask everyone near you to take a hit with you, since it’s totally awesome skunkweed that you, like, can’t get in the local vending machine? If it’s not OK, then why not?
  • Can you drive when you’re stoned? What’s the legal blood-THC level? Is it state-regulated or federal-regulated? For that matter, what is the jurisdiction for ALL marijuana-related laws? Can states override federal rulings? Provinces? Counties? Cities? Homeowners associations?
  • What exactly is the Coast Guard supposed to do now? Can illegal drug smugglers just land and start selling on the docks? Are consumers supposed to buy their marijuana on the street? What happens to the existing supply-chain operations? How are they taxed? Who oversees it?
  • Can you smoke marijuana on airplanes? Can airplanes offer it to their customers in-flight? Is it regulated in-flight more like tobacco (don’t get the smoke in other peoples’ faces) or alcohol (imbibe as you will, as long as you don’t “appear intoxicated”?) What about marijuana brownies? Are you allowed to eat it in areas where you’re not allowed to smoke it?
  • Can an airplane captain smoke pot? A ship captain? A train conductor? The driver of a car? An attendee at a Broadway musical? A politician in a legislative session? What is the comprehensive list of occupations, positions and scenarios in which smoking pot is legal? What about eating pot? What about holding it? What about holding a pot plant? What about the seeds?
  • Speaking of the seeds, are there different laws governing distribution, sale and possession of seeds vs. plants vs. buds vs. joints? If so, why? If not, why not?
  • What laws govern the transportation of marijuana in any form into or out of countries where it is still illegal? What policies are states able to enact? Is it OK under any circumstances for a person to go to jail over the possession or use of marijuana? If so, what are those circumstances?
  • Are there any laws governing the use of marijuana by atheletes? U.S. military personnel? Government employees? Government contractors? U.S. ambassadors, in title or in spirit? What are our extradition laws? What do we do about citizens who are subject to the death penalty in countries like Singapore for the possession of sufficient quantities of what we now consider to be legal substances?
  • What about derivatives? Are the laws the same for hashish? How do we tell the difference? What if someone engineers a super-powerful plant? How do the new laws extend to a potential spectrum of new drugs similar to THC?
  • For driving and operating machinery, do we have legal definitions that are equivalent of blood-alcohol percentage, and if so, what are these definitions? How do we establish them? How do we figure out what is actually dangerous? How do we test for these levels? When they are established, do we we put up signs on all roadways? Do we update the Driver’s Education materials? How do we communicate this change to the public?
  • How does legalization impact our public health education programs? Do they have to immediately retract all campaigning, advertising and distributed literature that mentions marijuana? How does legalization interact with the “Say no to drugs” programs? Do we need extra education to differentiate between a drug that is now legal (but wasn’t before) and drugs that are still illegal? What’s our story here? What about other drugs that are even less addictive and/or less intrusive than marijuana?
  • Monsanto is eventually going to sue the living shit out of someone for using genetically-engineered pot seeds. Can they sue individuals with a single plant in their windowsill? (answer: yes) Will Oprah step in and help that beleaguered individual? (answer: we’ll see!)

The Date of the UKAzure Net Inaugural Meeting has been Changed

Please note : This meeting was due to take place on the 14th of May but has been moved to the 19th of May. Details can still be found here.

Twitter in Microsoft Outlook

I have been experimenting with a twitter plug-in for Microsoft Outlook called OutTwit. So far I’m pretty pleased with it. It’s very easy to install and configure. Has lots of nice configuration options and some neat features such as the ability to search, track, filter and group tweets and have the results delivered into different Outlook folders.

Twitter Scaling with Scala : At Some Point the Cost of Servers Outweighs the Cost of Programmers

There’s a good article here about Twitter’s seemingly controversial move from a pure Ruby stack to Ruby on Rails plus JVM/Scala. What’s most interesting though is why this is seen as remotely controversial. It really illustrates how many people are still slaves to completely irrational and fanatical devotions not only to particular technologies, but pure implementations thereof. There are people leaping in left, right and centre almost falling over each other to demonstrate their unique combination of ignorance and bias. As Todd Hoff points out,

“Twitter didn’t take this large leap out of ignorance or incompetence.”

And Twitter’s Steve Jenson adds, :

“We spent several weeks going over our options, running extensive load tests, and presented our findings to the team at each stage. We did our due diligence.”

But it doesn’t matter how thorough the research and testing or how well founded the argument. The problem is that the fanatics have previously adopted twitter as their mascot or standard bearer and they became its champions. It became the thing they pointed to or waved aloft when arguing the case for the supremacy of their of little pet technology. As a result they made twitter their own, they made an emotional investment in it. Now, when it’s being changed they feel let down, betrayed even. Ridiculous.

How not to scale

Speaking of scale there’s an interesting article here by Bart Smaalders of Sun Microsystems about performance anti-patterns. He has identified a number of these anti-patterns :

  • Fixing Performance at the End of the Project
  • Measuring and Comparing the Wrong Things
  • Algorithmic Antipathy
  • Reusing Software
  • Iterating Because That’s What Computers Do Well
  • Premature Optimization
  • Focusing on What You Can See Rather Than on the Problem
  • Software Layering
  • Excessive Numbers of Threads
  • Asymmetric Hardware Utilization
  • Not Optimizing for the Common Case
  • Needless Swapping of Cache Lines Between CPUs

Although it does appear to have been written from the perspective of “performance over all” and some sections (e.g. the one about layering) ignore that fact that the history of software development has been a gradual trade-off between performance and other equally important things like flexibility, maintainability, portability, modularity, productivity etc, it’s a short, well written article that makes interesting reading.

Really BIG numbers of people

A lot seems to be made in the media about user reactions to changes in services like Facebook. There’s a certain amount of spiteful glee with which these stories are reported. Facebook is being “forced to backpedal”, or “driven into a u-turn” by “user revolt” over changes in its UI/homepage. The media peddles this perception that Facebook just can’t seem to get it right. That every time they make any change there’s this huge uprising and backlash of user opinion against them.

However, last time I checked Facebook had over 180 million users. If it was a country it would be the 6th largest country in the world, between Brazil and Pakistan. So, let’s face it, if Facebook were simply to change the colour of their page header to a slightly lighter blue then just statistically they would be likely to piss off around 20 million people and confuse another 30 million. Firstly, people don’t like change. Secondly, everyone is either an expert about what Facebook should be like or a critic of how it is. Finally, as Mr Gladwell has explained, you can’t trust people’s opinions about what they like or what they want anyway. The vast majority of the these millions of users didn’t even know they wanted Facebook until Zuckerberg and Co. presented it to them. Every time there’s a change at Facebook a dozen or more groups will be formed called things like “Give us back our old Facebook!”. These groups will generally contain all the people who joined the same groups last time there was a change. So, which is it people ? Do you want your old Facebook back ? Or your old, old Facebook? Or how about your old, old, old Facebook ? Or how about you just go back to MySpace where you get to make all the design decisions, because I remember how good you all were at it. Those MySpace pages were just beautiful. Billions of lines of centred, 18pt, bold Comic Sans in neon yellow on black.

So, you think Facebook have problems ? If Microsoft Office were a country it would be the 3rd largest country in the world, right there after China and India. Close to 500 million users and that’s just the people who’ve bought licenses. It’s also a commercial application which people pay for and on which they depend for their productivity. There are vast communities of “professional” powers users. Hoards of people who use Microsoft Excel for a living. The 5 extra seconds it takes to find one single menu item that’s been moved multiplied by half a billion users means about 100,000 man days of productivity are lost on just the first day a new version of office is released – yeah, yeah, I know. It doesn’t quite work like that, but you get my point.

Portable Ubuntu

I have been having a play with Portable Ubuntu for Windows. It’s a 450 MB download (nearly 2 GB once unzipped) that will run an Ubuntu environment on your Windows desktop either from your hard drive or from a USB drive. On the one hand it’s nice because it runs in the system tray and adds a launcher bar to your Windows desktop so your Ubuntu applications run alongside your native apps just like any other Windows app. It certainly has a more seamless feel to it over the full desktop-in-a-window, VM-style implementations. However, at nearly 2 GB with only a limited set of applications installed this is a bit of a fatboy installation in amongst a whole host of very slender portable Linux distros. It seems to run OK on Windows XP and Windows 7 but crashes the Windows 2008 Server which I use as a workstation.

UKAzureNet

The UK User Group for Microsoft Azure (UK AzureNet) was launched last week. On Monday I attended the inaugural meeting of the Steering Group. On Tuesday the public launch was held at Microsoft’s Cardinal Place offices in Victoria. I couldn’t make this event unfortunately, but I understand it was a success and seems to have created sufficient buzz to carry us through the the first “real” meeting which will be on 14th May, also at Cardinal Place. Pizza and beer will also be provided, courtesy of Microsoft. You can sign up for the 19th May event here.

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