Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Monroe County Budget

Budget Numbers have been released for Monroe County. I haven't analyzed it carefully yet, but Kurt Van Der Dussen of the Herald-Times summarized it. (Password required). The budget is a little more than $50 million, including $12 million for juvenile services, $9 million for justice, and $9 million for adminstration.

Monday, August 29, 2005


Here's a list of hurricane bloggers. It sounds nightmarish down there. Our prayers are with them. Some of these bloggers appear to be very near the heart of the storm, and it's unnerving to look at this list of people and have to seriously wonder whether the last post they've made, will be their last post, ever...

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Book review: Ordeal by Innocence, Agatha Christie

My wife has been going through and reading all the Hercule Poirot stories from Ms. Christie, and we picked this one up to read together, so we were a bit surprised to find that M. Poirot was noticeably absent. As well as being a traditional mystery, the book is also a character analysis: when it turns out that the man convicted of the murder was innocent, it means that another of the family must have been the murderer, and the family members react to this information in their various ways. But the traditional gathering-together-of-the-suspects-to-reveal-the-killer also takes place, with one Arthur Calgary playing the role of detective. He's not a character I'm aware of from any other books, and since he is occupied as a scientist rather than a detective or policeman, I suspect he is a one-off character brought in to keep the focus of attention on the family rather than M. Poirot's mustaches. But he's not the only sleuth; Philip Durrant, a member of the family, also is digging around, while the local police are trying to rectify their original error.

The characters all have personalities that are a bit unusual; not surprising considering their backgrounds as war orphans. The majority of the first three-quarters or so of the book advance the plot very slowly, as the characters are developed and we watch them bouncing off each other. But the action picks up at the end, and the last part of the book moves along with the pacing of a Robert Ludlum novel.

But there are a couple of weak points, which I can't discuss without revealing quite a bit of the plot; see below. So it's not really one of Ms. Christie's stronger works. One bad apple in a barrel of really tasty ones is only to be expected, I suppose.

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WARNING: Spoilers below. I'm not sure if it's all that important to place that warning on a review of a 50-year-old book, but hey, there it is if it's necessary :)

I didn't buy into the ending. It revolves around a woman falling in love and being betrayed by a man whose diapers she changed. IMO it's not likely that that would occur; if you grow up with someone you will more or less know how they will react in a given situation and you would know whether or not they are lying.

A stabbing occurs near the end of the book. The plot dictates that the stabbed woman (a) does not realize she was stabbed, and (b) walks 50 or 100 feet before fainting. A doctor justifies to us that this was possible, but is it really? I have a hard time believing it.

Dilbert's days are numbered

Within a few years, you won’t be able to make money as a salaried software developer anymore.

No, it’s not because all the jobs are going to India.  The benefits of having your employees in the same time zone as your customers aren’t going away, and the Western cultural values of innovation and initiative still have an edge over the development that goes on in India, IMO.   No, the threat to software developers is more straightforward:  how do you make money doing what people are willing to do for free?

It’s an issue that’s beginning to hit journalism, too; look at all the recent mainstream interest in blogging.   You see a lot of harrumphing about the “blogger community” does this and “the blogosphere” does that, usually in the line of not having credibility, or not doing proper research, or not doing proper fact-checking, which all misses the point:  The sheer number of bloggers means that there will be a lot of lousy blogs, like this one, and a few really great blogs.    Presumably, the great blogs are run by people who, trained or not, are doing really top-quality journalism.  So what do you do if you’re a print journalist?  People are doing for free what you are doing for a living.

How about podcasting?  One of the most lucrative areas of radio is “drive-time”; that is, the audience that listens during their daily commute.  I have a commute of over an hour, and last year I seriously considered getting a lifetime subscription to Sirius radio, since the over-the-air broadcasting in Indianapolis is pretty uninteresting, with the possible exception of Wank and O’Brien.  I still listen to quite a bit of CNBC, but lately I spent at least an hour listening to podcasts.  What is going to happen to broadcast radio when their competition is serving up basically commercial-free content?

And it’s the same situation in software, due to the open-source-software movement.  Whenever I need a new tool or utility, the first place I look is http://sourceforge.net/.  The people who work on these products are passionate and excited.  The people who work at it for a living are more interested in leaving early to get in a round of golf.

Now, it won’t happen overnight.  Open-source projects tend to be very end-user oriented.  Right now I work for a company that makes medical software, and there aren’t many developer communities that want to provide this.  (There are some, though!)  But the amount of open-source code out there really shows that people are willing to write just about anything that is necessary.  In the future, the only way to make money from software development will be as a leader, an energizer of a particular open-source community and a consultant providing services, maintaining a site-specific implementation of an open-source product.   Dilbert’s days are numbered.

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Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Medical Billing Community Building

This site is surprisingly sophisticated. When I think of industries or communities that really need an online meeting place, Medical Billing is not the first one that comes to mind. But this site is running a blog with many articles and a set of forums. Nice job, guys! They're based here in Bloomington, IN.

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Thursday, August 11, 2005

Bloomington Downtown Plan text

I've now made the Bloomington Downtown Plan available here. It's not very pretty or formatted very well, but it's less than 200K. I'll try to work on making it nicer as time permits.

Bloomington Downtown

The new Bloomington downtown plan is now available online. (It's a PDF file that's around 15 megs, so I hope the link stays valid.) A few years back I was very interested in the Monroe County plan, which showed certain areas that were supposed to stay rural, others that were designated for business, etc, but you look at the county now and there pretty much appears to be random subdivisions just thrown up all over the place, which probably says more about the influence of money in local government than it does about anything else. Apparently the Republican members of the town council are also making a Delay-like redistricting plan to grab even more power - I'll be keeping an eye on that story too. But the Bloomington downtown has been exploding over the last couple of years, rather like the west side in the years before that, and it has several new nine or ten story buildings and more parking garages, and construction still continuing. I find it odd that the plan was written by a Colorado company, too...

I was kind of expecting to rip the plan to shreds when I started this article. But overall I think it's a thoughtful document, with some good ideas, and worth putting online in a format that doesn't require a pdf reader and enough time to download the whole thing. I may look into that.

Of course, I do have issues with it. The plan makes the fundamental assumption that the population of childless, older households, such as "empty-nesters" and young professionals, is going to jump, and have plenty of ready cash to spend. I have my doubts about that, since the town still consists of at least half college students. It assumes that the aggregate spending in Bloomington is going to jump more than 25% over the next five years, from $375 million to $475 million, and suggests that the downtown might be able to capture a quarter of that.

Favorite quote: "The Courthouse Square serves as the center of the Courthouse Square." Uh, right.

But there are interesting ideas as well. The plan mentions a lot that everyone who spends time downtown now, considers parking as a big issue. But they point out that there are very often plenty of spaces within just one or two blocks of any given destination. I can vouch that on weekends at least, parking is not really an issue. I suspect that what people mean by parking is similar to what students mean by university parking on campus: Parking for eight hours at a time, and free. That's not going to happen. The authors threw this community a bone at the end by adding "new parking garage" at the end of their recommendations, but I think that's a result of city or focus group pressure. The downtown would probably do just as well by doing a better job of pointing drivers to the downtown spots. Also, I really like the sectioning of the downtown into areas - the Railroad Gateway, the University Village, and others.

So what will it all mean? Probably not a lot. A piece of paper to be thrown in a drawer. But with luck, enough of the good ideas will be taken away by the people responsible for permits for downtown projects to make some nice additions to downtown. We'll see...

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Thursday, August 04, 2005

Docking the Feed Subscriptions window in RSS Bandit

I'm not sure how I undocked the window, but there's no obvious way to get it back. Searching for "Dock" and "Pin" on the web site proved fruitless. After a day or so of it being undocked, I finally doubleclicked sort of randomly on the top left corner of the window, et voila! It redocked back to its correct position. Whew!

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Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Credibility of Scoble and Slashdot

A lot of research is going on now into what gives online writers credibility - how it is earned; how it can be rated numerically, etc. This work is important because it's directly related to the value of the web itself. If I want to hire a plumber, I'll most likely do it by asking a friend for a recommendation. The credibility of my friend with me is so high that I'm probably going to accept his judgment without question. But what if I've just moved to a new city? I can go to Google and search for Boulder, Colorado Plumbers and probably find someone, but it's not nearly as likely to be someone I'm happy with on the first try. (And of course, the credibility that Google has with me is even more than I would have for something like http://www.servicemagic.com/, even though that actually might be just as good.)

But the credibility problem has been around for decades. Take a look at Usenet (or, for all practical purposes nowadays, Google Groups.) When I was spending a vast amount of time reading and posting there, back in the late 80's and early 90's, you could spend a few hours reading a few month's posts in a group like rec.sport.billiards and get a pretty good idea who was worth reading and who was not. It had to do with authority, knowledge, politeness, willingness to respond to newbie posts, things like that. You can still do it today, sometimes - it won't take much reading in comp.lang.c++.moderated before you see that James Kanze is someone to whom it is well worth paying a lot of attention.

Of course, it worked in the other direction too. There were individuals who gained notoriety rather than credibility, and you would tend to pay less attention to these individuals than the average poster whose name you didn't even recognize.

The other interesting thing to notice is that if you ever met a person in real life, his credibility would soar with you. So if you watched an online argument between someone you had met and someone you had not, you would almost always tend to side with the one you had met.

What made me think about all this was the flack about Internet Explorer 7 and the Google Toolbar, as reported by Scoble. The actors in the drama gained and lost credibility in my sight off and on as I followed along. Since I haven't ever met them, my estimation of their credibility was based solely on their online messages. For example, when the Register posted its first correction, it said that Scoble himself had actually seen the bug. I hadn't gotten that impression from the online reports, and Robert later denied it himself. So where did the report come from? A misunderstood phone message, a private email? Don't know, don't care. It's not verifiable from public statements. The Register credibility drops.

A message is posted in the Scobleizer comments, claiming to have replicated the bug. Robert asks for screen shots. None are made available publically, but later many commenters sneer at the fact that "The bug was reported on your own comments!" Well, the original poster never responded again that I saw, so their credibility, along with the other posters, drops. A commenter named Andrew makes some snotty comments, including name-calling. His credibility drops a lot. Scoble handles him perfectly, choosing to ignore the first insult and calling him out on the second. Good responses, and more cred for the Scobleizer.

So, based strictly on what I saw online, it's clear to me that Robert is the most credible actor in this drama, and I tend to buy the Microsoft side of the story. Of course, I don't know any of the private details, and I'm not likely ever to. But the only way the Register could recover their cred with me would be to call me up personally and tell me exactly what really happened. I'm not holding my breath.

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The Comics Page

So the local paper sent out a survey about the comics page. Even the the funnies are the first thing I turn to when I read the paper, I've always been hesitant to write to the paper about them since it seems more appropriate to write about I-69 or some other political issue rather than grouse about how unfunny Dilbert was today. But I sure don't mind blogging about it, and I did answer the survey. The rules were: Choose your top 5 in order, suggest some new titles, and suggest any old ones to be dropped.

The old ones to be dropped was the most interesting choices. I only had one additional suggestion, Baby Blues, so I didn't want to list out the dozen or so that I would have liked to dump so as not to seem overly negative. So I restrained myself to two, the always unfunny and fundamentalist B.C., and Peanuts, whose author is dead. But I had many to choose from! The Wizard of Id is not quite as bad as B.C.; it doesn't have the religious bombasticism but does have the endless golf jokes. Mallard Fillmore for the most part is strictly right-wing propaganda, disguising hate as satire, but it has been funnier lately.

The five to be selected were tough too, though. I selected Zits and Arlo-n-Janis as the two best; Doonesbury and Dilbert as the two that might have the most negative reactions that I wanted to keep, but I had trouble deciding on the last one.

Keeping a comic strip fresh must be really difficult. I think you have to mature and grow your characters over time, which is why Fox Trot didn't make my list. There have been a lot of good strips but there's only so many jokes you can make. If he's ever willing to send Peter off to college or Jason to high school it might gain a little more freshness. For Better Or For Worse has the interesting take of trying to age its characters in realtime, but I don't think it quite works; sometimes you have to run a week's worth of strips that the characters see in about five minutes, but yet they've grown a week in that time. Baby Blues seems to informally age its characters at about half realtime, which works pretty well. But Doonesbury handles this issue the best, which is how it's managed to survive for more than 30 years and still be good. The characters mostly seem to age when offscreen, and their ability to make major life shifts helps to keep the strip fresh; B.D.'s injury, for example, or Mike and J.J.'s divorce. Of course, sometimes the author sidesteps the issue, like Garry Larson and Bill Watterson, and just ends the strip. I salute them for that, and you have to feel sorry, I guess, for Berke Breathed, who figured out that it was time to end Bloom County only a few years after it stopped being funny, before bringing it back in a couple of awful sequels. Suppose he needed the money?

Random thoughts on some other strips: Big Top I think is probably only carried since it's an Indiana guy, but it's pretty good. Right now it's balanced on the edge between being a series of running gags a la B.C., and gaining the textural richness of Doonesbury, so we'll have to see how it pans out. Wee Pals, although unfunny, is sort of a "little kids" strip - I wonder if the name is a play on the original Peanuts title, "Li'l Folks"? - so it should probably stay just for its inclusive attitude. Garfield - someone did a blog entry using Jim Davis as an example of someone who would never be a great artist. I've lost the link, but it's not quite true; the first few years of Garfield were very good, but then it was finagled onto a corporate empire and lost all semblence of creativity along the way. Tank McNamara is usually worth reading.

Then there are a couple of tech-focused online strips I like: User Friendly - although it drives me nuts that there's no RSS feed - and Bug Bash, which has only done a few entries. Which strips are your favorites?

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Monday, August 01, 2005

VS .NET not detecting ASP.NET ?

If you try to create a new web application with VS.NET, you might get this error message:

Visual Studio .NET has detected that the specified Web server is not running ASP.NET version 1.1. You will be unable to run ASP.NET Web applications

It could be that the aspnet user account is not registered. Harish Ranganathan has instructions for fixing the problem. Thanks, Harish!

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Thursday, July 28, 2005

Interesting ImageGear problem

Not that I know anything about OCR, but you wouldn't really think that machine-printed characters in a TIFF file would be all that difficult to recognize. And for the most part, the Accusoft toolkit does a good job, but it has some problems with characters in a box...if the left size of the box is close to the first number, and the number happens to be -9, it will invariably drop the minus sign. After some experimentation, I found it becomes more accurate if you tell it that the box is in a zone that only numbers are in.

But that led to a fascinating issue when I attempted to run a release build, where the minus sign was still being dropped. My application is written in C++, and there is a ZONE structure exposed to set up the area where numbers are. Eventually, after I created the ZONE on the stack, I added code to initialize the struct in the same way that Visual Studio will initialize it in debug mode:

memset(&zone, 0xcc, sizeof(zone));

And now it works like a charm in release.

I suspected that a problem like this was going to come up. One of the first things I did as I was trying to get the app to work was to set the ZONE to all zeroes before I passed it to the toolkit, and this caused it to fail. I opened a ticket with Accusoft, partly since this is a bug that they should know about, but mostly just out of curiosity to find out what is working when its byte is initialized to 0xCC :)

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Friday, July 22, 2005

OnTime v6 and Source Code Control - Part 1

Looks like my new company is also very close to buying OnTime for bug tracking. I wasn't sold on it after the quick demo - it certainly seems to do everything a bug tracker should do, of course. But when I checked out the web site and found that they have their own employee blog site...that's a deal maker as far as I'm concerned!

Quality Programming - Bug Analysis

Quality Programming - Bug Analysis

Good discussion of how to prevent new bugs, based on the reporting of old ones.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Learning to use ImageGear

My first task at my new job is learning to use the ImageGear imaging toolkit from Accusoft. I skimmed through the documentation and it looks like pretty standard stuff - I've used both DirectX and LeadTools in the past so I'm fairly familiar with imaging libraries.

But I have to say the initial user experience with ImageGear is *awful*! They have a "web install" that you're supposed to use to download an evaluation copy, but the server transfers data at around 35K/Sec, and if you don't change any of the defaults you get 450M worth of stuff. It's not suspendable or anything, and every so often it stops dead to tell you that the last file failed.

As an alternative they have a downloadable "CD" install, which is the same 450M but you download it all to the desktop first. At 35K/Sec. So be prepared to wait about 5 hours from the start of the download to the end. That's where I am now. If nothing messes up I should be just about ready to try running the install.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Opening tar files in Windows XP SP2

I wonder what happened here? If you download a tar file using Windows XP SP2 and Internet Explorer, it will change the doc type to tar.tar. If you try to open it, you get a message saying "Error reading header after processing 0 entries." But the zip itself isn't corrupt, apparently. If you change the file extension to gz it will open just fine.

Friday, July 15, 2005

10 Easy Ways to Keep Me from Visiting Your Church Because I Visited Your Website

Tony Morgan has given us a great set of instructions on how not to. I have an eerie feeling he was visiting our church site when he wrote them. Our church site really needs to be reworked anyway; I wrote it using Microsoft Frontpage, which is fine, but I tried to make the site using Microsoft Themes, and that seems to have made it extremely complicated to update. My plan is to rework it, a page at a time, using only CSS and XHTML. Maybe I can get it finished before anyone tries to review it.

Soccer camp II

Soccer camp is over. I thought Jesse had terrific ball-handling skills, but his insistence on doing his own thing really stopped him from accomplishing much. Everyone always says, "Oh, don't worry, he's too young to worry about his skills, he just needs to have fun." The unfortunate bit is, he refuses to have fun! There's nothing that makes him happier than kicking a ball around with mom or dad, but get him into a group setting and he freezes up. Note that this isn't specific to soccer groups, either, so that worries me a bit. If I'd thought about goals for the camp before it started, I would have listed them like this:

  1. Have fun
  2. Interact with the other kids
  3. Do what the teacher/coach says
  4. Learn soccer rules
  5. Learn kicking skills

#4 and #5 he did pretty well. The first three were a bust. The coach would tell everyone to dribble the ball very slowly in the circle, for example. The other 20 kids would do it. Jesse would sit on his ball and watch them. Then he would run over to us for a drink.

So I don't think we got what we wanted out of it. Oh well, he'll start in a preschool in the fall, maybe that will get him to interact more.

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