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23 May 21:45

Fix Google+'s Biggest Annoyances with These Userscripts

by Eric Ravenscraft

Last week at Google I/O, the company's social network got a big facelift. In some ways, it looks great, but it also introduced a slew of new problems. Enter userscripts to clean things up.

Most of these extensions will play nice with either Greasemonkey (Firefox) or Tampermonkey (Chrome), however each have their own set of instructions and idiosyncrasies. Be sure to read carefully before installing anything.

Bring Back Auto-Refresh

One of the biggest changes to the new Google+ stream is that it no longer auto-refreshes. Instead, you get a little blue button that tells you how many new posts are waiting for you. That's neat and all, but it becomes almost useless when you reach 50 or 100 new posts. If you'd rather have those posts automatically show up, Auto Load G+ will bring those new posts to the top of your feed without any action.

Get Rid of the White Space in Single-Column View

The multi-column layout is great for filling up your page with posts, but it can get really busy and difficult to read. You can set the page to a single-column layout, but then you end up with huge gaps on either side of your stream. Fix this with the Wider posts on Google+ user style.

It's recommended to use this script in the Stylish extension (Chrome, Firefox), but the developer says it may work well in the usual [Chooseyour]Monkey extensions.

Change the Font to Something More Readable

The new design features the Roboto font that Google's been so proud of since Ice Cream Sandwich came out. This looks great on super-high resolution displays, but it can get a bit grody on the less pixel-packed displays on computer monitors or some laptops. The Google+ Change Font script will switch it to a more palatable font by default (though with a little CSS trickery, you can set it to anything you want).

Automatically Stay in Video Hangouts

Hangout parties (the new name for the multi-user video chat formerly known simply as Hangouts) have a mildly annoying habit of prompting you to prove you're still there and awake every 90 minutes. If you're prone to long video sessions, G+ Hangouts Unlimited will automatically confirm that you're present whenever the alert pops up.

Add Notification Boxes for Other Google Services

We've all gotten used to the bright red box notifying you of new things happening on Google+. If you'd like that same kind of service for other Google products, check out Google+ Enhancer. The name is a bit of a misnomer as it works outside of the G+ stream, but it helpfully adds a red box next to Gmail, Calendar, or Reader to let you know when those services have something to share with you.

Remove the Google+ Notification Box on Other Sites

On the flip side, sometimes the best way to get things done is to just reduce the number of notifications you get. If you want to focus on searching when you're searching and email when you're in Gmail, this script will hide the Google+ notification box unless you're actually visiting the Google+ stream itself. It won't remove the share button, but you'll at least be free of the constant bouncing button telling you there's new stuff to be distracted by.

The new design has only been out for about a week, so more userscripts are likely to crop up that improve the experience eventually. In the meantime, these should already provide a nice usability boost.

22 May 17:24

Why Global Warming’s Effects Will Be Worse Than You Were Thinking [Greg Laden's Blog]

by Greg Laden

The story of climate change has always been more of worst-case, or at least, worser-case scenarios developing and less about good news showing up out of nowhere and making us unexpectedly happy.

A few decades ago, it became clear that the release of fossil Carbon into the atmosphere primarily as CO2 was going to cause a greenhouse effect (yes, dear reader, we’ve known this for looooong time … the idea that this is a recent and still untested idea is a lie you’ve been fed so many times some of you may have begun to believe it). At that time climate scientists thought, reasonably, that there would be a diverse set of responses to the increase in CO2 and/or the increase in heat, some of which would accentuate the effects (positive feedback) and others would reduce the effects (negative feedback). Over time, the list of possible ameliorating effects became shorter and shorter and eventually pretty much disappeared. There is no double secret save-our-butts-at-the-last-minute Carbon “sink” nor is there any natural response that would cause cooling to somehow be caused by warming. Meanwhile, the list of accentuating effects has grown. Melting permafrost releases copious green house gasses. Melting sea ice in the Arctic allows the Arctic Sea to warm even more. Global warming-caused aridity causes numerous fires which coat the Greenland ice with soot, causing it to melt faster and do less of the work of reflecting sunlight back into space. And so on and so forth.

For these reasons, several years go you’d have climate scientists saying “well, this is important, and change is coming, but there’s good news and bad news” and then the good news all went away and the bad news all stuck around, and every now and then, a new bad news item not previously thought of came along and lengthened that list. So already, climate change is worse than we thought.

Then we have the problem of scary empirical reality.

The Ghost of the Eemian

One of the most significant negative effects of global warming is likely to be sea level rise. Sea level rise so far has been significant, measurable, and important, but not large. As the earth warms because of increased levels of greenhouse gasses, the temperature of the ocean has increased, and this has caused the water in the ocean to expand, raising the level of the sea. At the same time, glaciers have been melting all across the planet, adding additional water to the sea, causing additional sea level rise.

So you can see that there is a link between temperature and sea level rise. More heat, more sea level rise. But there’s a problem with this model. Based on prior experience, it seems that our planet normally responds to heat like we are experiencing now with a much higher sea level. During the Eemian period, the last time conditions were similar to the present, sea level was about 5 to 7 meters higher than now. In other words, given an admittedly small sample of 2 instances, when global temperatures are roughly like they are now, sea level can be anywhere between their current levels and 7 meters higher than current levels.

This is not the kind of relationship between important variables that allows us to say that sea levels are going to go down, or stay at their current level, or rise very slowly. These are the kinds of numbers that tell us that we really don’t know what is going to happen over the next few decades, but that the chance that sea level will drop is zero, and the chance that sea level will rise only a little is slim, and the chance that sea level will rise quickly and a great deal at some point in time, or in a few spurts, is pretty good.

Predicting genocide using information about voting patterns

Which brings us to more details about the problem of sea level. Sea levels will rise the most not because of warming oceans but because of glaciers … whopping big continental glaciers … falling apart and slipping into the sea, or melting very rapidly and sending copious meltwater into the sea. Everything we know about the Greenland and Antarctic glaciers seems to indicate that at least some of this is going to involve large events, where big parts of big glaciers slide into the sea, rather than melting slowly like an ice cube in your sink. Also, the rates of melting during a handful of events observed over the last couple of years were entirely unpredicted and shocked scientists watching the process. Also, previously unknown causes of rapid melting are as we speak being discovered and measured.

Putting this another way, it would be a reasonable guess that the rate of continental glacial melting will be much higher than previously estimated, but also, the timing and speed of this ice wastage is pretty much unknown, and quite possibly unknowable except in very broad terms.

We have some very fancy models based on physics of ice melting and a few other variables that can be used to estimate ice melt and sea level rise. The problem is, these unpredictable and large scale catastrophic events have never been observed to happen. Yet, we think that they can happen in part because the rate of sea level rise thousands of years ago at the end of the last glacial maximum was so fast at times that it must have involved some pretty rapid events, more rapid than our models are able to predict. Our models can’t predict these events not because the events can not happen but because the models have no way of dealing with them.

This problem reminds me of my days living in the Eastern Congo. Things were mostly peaceful. But, there were some tensions among various social factions, including different ethnic groups, different classes, and so on. There was tension along the borders between Zaire, Rwanda, and Uganda. But there was nothing whatsoever going on during my time there that would have predicted the Rwandan Genocide, the Congo War I or the Congo War II, or any of the troubles that I now realize were just starting then. This would be especially true if we were making careful sociological observations, measuring variables, taking polls, counting things, and so on and so forth. Major social upheaval comes when it comes, and is rarely accurately predicted by those carefully measured and modeled variables, and the timing and magnitude of those upheavals is never known in advance. And as human society so often goes, so may well go the glaciers of Greenland and the Antarctic. Our physics based models are going to look rather silly, predicting a melting rate of several centimeters a year, when three or four big-gigantic glacial monster fragments fall into the ocean within a year or two of each other along with a steady stream of slush causing ten years worth of sea level rise faster than you can say “property values in New York City may be slightly depressed” three times.

The Good News

There is no good news. But what often happens is that a bit of research comes along and looks like good news. This research is then identified, pointed to, repeated again and again, over-interpreted, used to argue that global warming is not real, and even used to argue that those who have been saying all along that global warming is real are making it up, on someone’s payroll, are part of some huge conspiracy, etc. etc.

In other words, the progress of understanding of the potential future effects of climate change is set back significantly every time a research project with slightly good news, or even just less bad news than usual, is reported. This is ironic, because so many of those research projects have flaws in them that if taken account of suggest that the good news is not really there to begin with.

For example, a recent study seemed to show that the response of the planet to increased Carbon Dioxide is less than we expected it to be, but only over the short term. The difference between long term “climate sensitivity” (the amount of warming you get from a certain amount of greenhouse gas) and short term is probably where the heat goes not how much is added. Over the last few years, the ocean has been taking on a larger share of the heat from global warming, so the atmosphere has not warmed up as much (though it has warmed). But, the partial story … that “sensitivity” is less for the present decade has been translated by various re-tellers of the science to suggest that we’ll be fine. In fact, the slowdown in rate of atmospheric warming, which is still warming (like I just said) is called a “stall” in warming. But it is not a stall. It is a slow down in rate in atmospheric warming and a speed up in rate of oceanic warming. That is not really good news though it is reported as good news. But there isn’t good news, just slightly more complicated news. (See this for a summary of that particular story.)

Not long ago another set of nuanced scientific observations were converted by the once reputable Matt Ridley in a piece in the Wall Street Journal, an outlet guilty of publishing this sort of misleading commentary on a regular basis, into “good news.” In …

“Cooling Down the Fears of Climate Change,” [Ridley] (falsely) asserts observations suggest global warming will be so low as to “be benificial.” This risible piece by Matt Ridley is so riddled with basic math and science errors it raises the question of how the Journal can possibly maintain its reputation as a credible source of news and financial analysis.

Ambiguous News

Of particular poignancy at the moment, since as I’m writing this the bodies of third graders are being pulled from a tornado-ravaged elementary school in Oklahoma, is discussion of the relationship between global warming and storminess. Storms are complicated. They vary in number from year to year, they vary in where they strike, and they vary in intensity per storm. Nonetheless there are patterns. There has been exactly one Atlantic hurricane in the south Atlantic ever, as far as we know. They only occur in the north. Tornadoes don’t occur randomly; they are clustered mostly in certain regions of the world and mostly occur during certain months, though there is a lot of variation.

Hurricanes are fueled by warm seas, and ripped apart by high level winds. Global warming causes sea surfaces to warm, and may also strengthen tropical and subtropical high level winds. So, does global warming mean more hurricanes or fewer? Or fewer but when they happen, stronger ones? Or what?

In the US, severe thunderstorms, bad straight line winds, and swarms of tornadoes typically arise from moist and warm unstable air masses organized along west to east and south to north moving fronts, with the heat and moisture starting out in the Gulf of Mexico, which is a big warm wet place during the summer. It stands to reason that if you heat up the Gulf, you’ll get more of this, and global warming is heating up the Gulf. But the actual distribution and behavior of these fronts will also depend on the distribution of the famous “Jet Streams” and that is potentially altered by climate change. So, will global warming involve more tornadoes, stronger ones, or will they simply occur somewhere else? Or what?

There is one thing we know about storms. They are ultimately manifestations of heat, and more specifically, they result from the uneven redistribution of heat originally from the sun concentrated in tropical regions and moving towards polar regions by currents of water and air. In a heated up world there is more energy to feed storms. It is impossible to imagine a significantly warmed ocean and a significantly warmed atmosphere without significantly more storm activity and/or stronger storms, and maybe even some new kinds of storms. The problem is that it is hard to say what kinds of storms will increase, if there will be more of some kind of storm or more severe instances. For that matter, maybe all storm types will “increase” at one time or another, taking turns being the big storm problem for a few years, and sometimes that increase will be in numbers, sometimes in strength, sometimes manifest as a change in location of the patterned storm activity. That would be a statistical nightmare. It would be a lot of “moreness” of various phenomena but distributed across a range of different manifestations so that counting storms or measuring storms of specific types will show a pattern only after decades. This is why we sometimes look at overall damage to property from meteorological events over time, and there we do see a steady increase. It is also why the insurance companies, who are not stupid about these things, are so worried.

“Global warming appeasers” (people who pretend to understand the science but who are really trying to make climate change sound like it is not a big deal, like Ridley) and denialists alike are taking advantage of the statistical difficulty of measuring changes in patterns of storms to assert that “we can’t link storms, or storminess, to climate change.” But we can. We know there will be a link between a heated up earth and storm patterns, we are just more than a little uncertain as to what kind of change that will ultimately consist of.

Again, there will be no good news about storminess. Just more detailed news, and possibly a more nuanced understanding, which unfortunately will require more nuanced reporting and commentary.

Good luck with that.

Photo Credit: DVIDSHUB via Compfight cc

30 Apr 18:31

Steam-powered AT-AT is the most romantic vehicle in the galaxy

by Lauren Davis

"Captain Bayley" (alias for a UK-based maker named Mark) created this gorgeous steampunk AT-AT sculpture/custom toy as an engagement gift for his lady love, Caroline. Hang on to that one, Caroline.



30 Apr 18:08

Treasure Trove of Empire Strikes Back photos will amaze you

by Meredith Woerner

Just when we think we've seen every single Star Wars photo in existence, we find a new cache of behind-the-scenes glimpses that show just how crazy this set got. Here's a collection of images shows just how the sausage was made in The Empire Strikes Back.



30 Apr 17:12

Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic, a Kindle Serial

by Jason Weisberger

Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: the Thirteenth Rib by David J. Schwartz is the first Kindle Serial I've tried. Serials are one time purchases episodically delivered as the author completes shorter installments.

Kindle Serials hold the hope of performing like an old time radio show. I enjoy looking forward to them.

Very much in the vein of the Magicians by Lev Grossman, Gooseberry Bluff is set in a future where magic is real and taught. The first episode hooked me as a Federal Bureau of Magic agent is sent undercover to investigate a community college professor's disappearance, apparently related to a larger demonic summoning/terrorist plot.

Schwartz uses 30-40 page installments to develop the story very well. I hope this format catches on.

Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: the Thirteenth Rib by David J. Schwartz


30 Apr 08:53

Congress tries to reset science grants, wants every one to be “groundbreaking”

by John Timmer
House member Lamar Smith thinks he can find ways to improve the National Science Foundation's grant-funding process.

Due to Congressional rules, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology had to choose new leadership this year. At the time, we opined that almost any choice would be a bad one. The Democrats had been neglecting the committee, leaving three seats unfilled, while the Republicans filled their seats with people who were openly hostile to a number of fields of science such as evolution and climate research. Late last year, the House leadership made its intentions clear, attempting to crowdsource a search for federal research grants that people considered wasteful spending.

Now, Congress is following through on that effort. Earlier this month, the House committee held hearings that featured the National Science Foundation (NSF) director and the chair of the board that oversees the science agency. Again, grants made to social scientists were held up as examples of wasteful spending. The committee's new chair, Lamar Smith (R-TX), used these to suggest that "[w]e might be able to improve the process by which NSF makes its funding decisions."

Rather than targeting only grants in the social sciences, Smith is reportedly preparing a bill that would revise the criteria for all grants funded by the agency. According to ScienceInsider, the bill would require the NSF director to certify that every grant met the following conditions:

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30 Apr 08:53

Google releases Glass source code, declares platform open to hackers

by Jon Brodkin
We can hack Google Glass if we want to, we can leave your friends behind, 'cause your friends don't hack and if they don't hack, well they're no friends of mine. Thomas Hawk

Google's Project Glass team has released the Linux-specific source code that ships with the Android-based augmented reality device. The source is available now at, and Google said "it should be pushed into git next to all other Android kernel source releases relatively soon."

This doesn't mean all of the source code related to Google Glass has been released. Android code is released in two parts—changes to the Linux kernel are released under the GPLv2 free software license, just as Linux itself is, while most of the code that makes Android recognizable to users is released under the Apache License. With Glass, just the Linux code has been released.

While the public nature of Android source code has allowed forks such as Amazon's Kindle Fire platform, a brand-new glasses platform based on Glass code wouldn't be possible just from the kernel source release. For example, any modifications made to the Android user interface to optimize it for Google Glass wouldn't be part of the kernel code.

Read 5 remaining paragraphs | Comments

29 Apr 23:24

Drop: Minecraft creator's latest game is a typing tutor (or seems like one)

by Mark Frauenfelder

Have at it. My top score is 11 because I can't type.


29 Apr 02:16

Congress fixes "sequester" air traffic control disaster just in time for their own flights home

by Cory Doctorow

The Congressional deadlock known as the sequester has been tough on America, especially on travellers, as air traffic controllers found themselves with mandatory 10% paycuts (attained through one-day-in-ten furloughs) and the delays on good-weather days at major airports like JFK shot up to snowpocalypse-like 2-3 hour slogs. But don't worry, Congress is on it! They've fixed things for the air traffic controllers -- and just in time! After all, Congress is recessing, and the Congresscritters themselves will all have to fly home.

Unlucky for them -- and the rest of America -- many of the most experienced air traffic controllers who'd been delaying retirement threw up their hands at this situation and left their jobs permanently, leaving a talent gap in one of America's most vital and esoteric industries.

On Thursday night and Friday afternoon, however, the Senate and House were literally moved to action by jet fumes: Congress rushed legislation to patch funding for air traffic controllers furloughed by the automatic budget cuts known as the “sequester” just before jetting home for a week in their states.

The Senate passed the bill without a vote Thursday night. House lawmakers approved the legislation, 361-41, before scampering out of town Friday.

The legislation stopped FAA staff reductions that left planes idling on runways across the country and canceled some flights altogether.

Before members rush for airports, Congress ends sequester flight delays [David Grant/Christian Science Monitor]

(Image: AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL, CONTROL TOWER (INTERIOR), a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from publicresourceorg's photostream)


29 Apr 00:21

The Amazing Life of Sean Smith, the Masterful Eve Gamer Slain in Libya

by Stephen Totilo

The headlines around the world about Sean Smith last year were mostly about how he left this Earth. But this is a story about what he did while he was here. This is a story about Sean Smith's life—about what he did in the so-called "real" world and what he did in a virtual galaxy where he was a Machiavellian legend.



26 Apr 23:06

A Cheat Sheet of Every Single Gmail Keyboard Shortcut

by Kyle Wagner
Click here to read A Cheat Sheet of Every Single Gmail Keyboard Shortcut Do you use Gmail a lot? Then you need to see this graphic with all the keyboard shortcuts that can make like a million times easier. It comes complete with visualizations of each action, for some reference of what you're actually accomplishing. More »

26 Apr 17:13

Jon Stewart un-thrilled with GW Bush presidential library

by John Aravosis
"The Hardrock Cafe of catastrophic policy decions."

25 Apr 23:40

Lauren Beukes's Shining Girls: a serial killer thriller with a time-travel twist

by Cory Doctorow

Lauren Beukes's latest novel, The Shining Girls, ships in the UK today (the US edition is out on June 4). The Shining Girls is a departure from Beukes's earlier cyberpunk-inflected fiction, being a supernatural thriller that's one part Hannibal and one part House on Haunted Hill, tautly written and sharply plotted.

Shining Girls is the story of a serial killer named Harper Curtis, a savage psychopath who hunts the alleyways of a stinking Hooverville in Depression-era Chicago. Curtis is your basic remorseless nutcase who reels from one act of callous violence to another. Until he happens upon a boarded-up house where he seeks refuge from the people he's wronged and a chance to rest up and lick his wounds from an unsuccessful encounter. And that house isn't just a house, it's the House, an unexplained and inexplicable haunted place that slips through time back and forth between the Depression and the early 1990s. In this house is a room, filled with the trophies of murdered girls and their names, written on the wall in Curtis's own handwriting. Curtis learns that his destiny is to travel through the ages, killing the girls he's already killed, taking the trophies he's already taken.

One of Harper's victims is Kirby Mazrachi, but unlike the rest (and unbeknownst to Harper), Kirby survives his vicious attack. As Kirby matures, her obsession with the man who nearly killed her takes over her life, and she wrangles a job interning for the Chicago Sun-Times reporter who covered her attack all those years ago. She wheedles him into helping her pick up the details again, and slowly they begin to unravel the weird and awful truth.

Deftly told from many points of view and in many timezones, Shining Girls is a tremendous work of suspense fiction. What's more, it's a fabulous piece of both time-travel and serial killer fiction, using the intersection of those two themes to explore questions of free will, predestination, and causality in a mind-melting, heart-pounding mashup that delivers on its promise.

The Shining Girls


25 Apr 23:39

Masters thesis on (post)cyberpunk

by Cory Doctorow
Krzysztof Kietzman sez, "I studied American literature in Poland and published my Masters Thesis on cyberpunk and postcyberpunk for free under a Creative Commons BY SA license. It is available online and covers the writers William Gibson ('Neuromancer') and Neal Stephenson ('Snow Crash', 'The Diamond Age') and the theme of innocence in cyberpunk fiction. This theme will be familiar to Boing Boing readers, as it appeared in the works of Mark Dery and John Barlow, among others. The thesis explores such topics as American individualism, escapism, religion and Rapture, 'the rapture of the nerds', AIs, etc. One chapter also covers cyberpunk in general."

25 Apr 02:32

How to: Build a better sand castle

by Maggie Koerth-Baker

Geoscientist Matt Kuchta explains why wet sand makes a better castle than dry sand — and what you can do to make your sand fortress even more impenetrable. Hint: The secret ingredient is window screens.


22 Apr 18:29

Girls and Boys

To get more knowledge
17 Apr 18:56

After Company Executives Get Massive Bonuses, Regal Theater Chain Cuts Employees’ Hours To Avoid Obamacare

by Sy Mukherjee

Several major companies in the fast food and service industries have dug in their heels against Obamacare, deciding that they would rather protect their bottom lines than provide their employees basic health benefits. On Monday, Regal Entertainment Group — which operates Regal Cinemas, Edwards Theaters, and United Artists screens in 38 states — joined the war on health reform, announcing it will cut back non-salaried workers’ shifts to 30 hours per week in order to avoid giving them basic coverage.

The theater chain claims that it is simply trying to “manage [its] budget…in accordance with business needs.” But that assertion rings hollow considering Regal’s soaring profits and lavish executive compensation. In 2012, Regal’s stock went up by over 20 percent, and every single major company executive, including the CEO, CFO, and COO, received a six-figure pay increase. CEO Amy Miles made off particularly well, with her pay rising by 31 percent to $4.45 million for the year, bolstered by a base salary increase of $750,000.

Regal is in the minority. Multiple surveys have shown that approximately 94 percent of the nation’s large employers will either definitely or most likely provide workers’ health benefits under Obamacare, since they fear that not doing so will invite public backlash and could potentially drive away current and prospective employees to companies that treat their workers better. As an executive of Aon Hewitt’s U.S. health and benefits department put it, employers’ incentive to stop sponsoring health insurance “is strong until you look at the numbers. Between the [Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act] penalties for failing to offer coverage and the ensuing talent flight risk, most employers believe they need to continue to play a role in employee health.”

Still, as Regal’s decision demonstrates, not all companies are thinking quite that strategically. But this type of anti-labor practice is nothing new, and it extends far beyond Obamacare. Large companies — and particularly those in the service sector — have a long history of protecting profits by cutting hours, firing workers, slashing benefits, and generally shifting costs onto their employees. Obamacare just offers these corporations a convenient scapegoat.


16 Apr 22:05

Dishonored Writer's New Novel Shows a Video Game Generation Being Born

by Evan Narcisse

If you’ve ever thought that it’s long past time that someone wrote a novel about people who make video games, then rejoice. YOU—a book of fiction about the how, why and who of video game development by Austin Grossman—comes out today. You can read an excerpt from the book’s first chapter right here.



16 Apr 22:03

Buyers of Night Shade Books Also Acquiring a Great Horror Publisher

by Charlie Jane Anders

Underland Press has put out some amazing books in the "scary and strange" genres, including horror and the "new weird." And now it's being bought by Skyhorse and Start, the same two companies that are buying Night Shade Books.



11 Apr 09:11

The 25 Books Every Kid Should Have on Their Bookshelf

by Miss Cellania


Any time you want to add to a child's reading experience, whether the child is yours or someone else's, a book from this list will be much appreciated. I counted 13 that I had as a child; most of the others weren't written that long ago. Check out the reasoning behind all 25 at Flavorwire. Link

11 Apr 03:08

A Useful Flowchart

10 Apr 09:52

The mental model mismatch

by Tom Limoncelli

Humans think in terms of mental models. In IT it is our responsibility to help them form accurate models as well as deal with inaccurate models that exist.

Humans use mental models of how things work to fill in context. If we are not given the model, we make one up. This made-up model may be unrelated to how things actually work, but if it is sufficient for us to get our job done then that's "good enough". I think this is evolutionary: we didn't know why the sun rose and fell, but we made up a model that included a god riding across the sky... a model that was good enough to deal with the fact that "night" and "day" alternate.

As sysadmins we often skip the step of helping users create that model then have an up-hill battle as we deal with users that have created their own, inaccurate, model. We see users do things that seem insane but are actually completely appropriate for the mental model they have created.

I saw a user plug two ports of his desktop ethernet switch into wall jacks so that he could get twice as much network speed. In his model, network bandwidth like electricity in a parallel circuit and this seemed like a reasonable way to get more bandwidth. Instead he crashed the network because he created an ethernet loop (this was before loop detection/prevention mechanisms were common).

When possible we must give users an accurate mental model. However, those opportunities are rare.

When we answer technical support questions we must be on the look-out for a user with a mental model that is inaccurate. It may have served them in the past but is insufficient for their current situation.

Years ago I was at a company that was changing VPN software. Announcement after announcement went out telling people that if they used the VPN they had to stop by the helpdesk to be switched to the new software. They were warned that the old VPN would stop working on a specific date. On that date, the helpdesk was flooded with users that couldn't understand why they couldn't connect to work. "Have you seen the emails about the old VPN being replaced?" "Sure, but I don't use a VPN."

In their mental model they didn't. The icon was called "Network Connect". Why would they pay attention to an email about "the VPN"? They never saw an icon or menu with the phrase "VPN" in it.

Who's fault was this situation? Hint: The user can't be blamed for not knowing that "Network Connect" is a VPN.

"Network Connect" was the icon they clicked that connected their laptop to the work network so they could access "work things." Their mental model was more like an on-off switch. When the switch is "on", web sites inside the company work. When it is "off", those sites don't work. The fact that they're still using the same web browser and other apps helped create this inaccurate model. The switch is turned on and things magically work; turn it off and things magically didn't. Their model didn't include encrypted packets. It didn't need to. In fact, during this we learned that many users were connecting to the VPN even when they were in the building. This, again, makes sense if "Network Connect" was an on switch that made internal services accessible.

This mental model mismatch contributes to a lot of the ills of corporate IT. In situations where people don't know I'm a sysadmin I often hear complaints about their company's IT department. Often I hear about the IT department doing bizarre things "just to make it more difficult to work here". It is a sad state of things that people feel that IT departments would do that. However with incorrect mental models so commonplace it makes total sense. Why would the IT department hide our websites unless a magic on-switch is flipped? What's to stop bad people from just having an on-switch installed on their laptops too? Now if enabling the VPN made their web browser display a "ah! this is an internal site! please wait while we connect through the VPN tunnel" message every time they accessed an internal website then the mental model would include some kind of tunnel analogy. Of course, that would be silly. Plus, the great thing about VPNs is that they are transparent to the applications.

The next time you send email to users consider, "What am I doing to create an accurate mental model?" and "What mental model might they have that I should play to?" When helping a confused user consider pausing to consider, "What is their mental model?" and either work within it or work to help create a new, more accurate, mental model.

10 Apr 09:49

Tickets and testing

by Chris Ess

Some time ago, I received a ticket from a customer to change an A record in a zone, a quick, easy thing to do. I made the change and told them that it was done. A few days later, I got a followup ticket saying “This doesn’t appear to be done.” I checked and, sure enough, the change didn’t appear when I queried the DNS servers. Apparently, in my haste, I had forgotten to do one simple but necessary step: increment the serial number in the zone file. Oops. Chagrined, I incremented the serial number, reloaded the zone file, verified that the change did indeed appear, and apologized profusely to the customer.

If only I tested the change before I decided I was done with the work, I could have found my error before my customer.

Mistakes like this don’t happen often, but they do happen. I know I have made many errors like this one throughout my time as a system administrator.

One Friday about a year ago, I handled a particularly hairy ticket. I spent the entire weekend half-expecting, dreading, I would get a phone call from the person on call telling me that I had screwed up. That call never came so I guess I did it right. On the following Monday, I decided to avoid weekends like that one and adopted a new policy: Test work I do before saying that I’m done. Before I do something, I would set up a test for the desired outcome, verify that the test fails, do the work, and then verify that the test passes.

An Example

To give you an idea of how this works, let’s do an example based on the scenario I mentioned earlier. Since I use Cucumber for my tests, I write a feature that looks like:

Feature: Change A record for
    When I query for the A record for “”
    Then I should get a response with the A record “”

I then run this feature and verify that it fails:
Cucumber says it failed!

I make the change on the DNS server and run the test again:
Cucumber says it failed again!

What? It failed? Oh, I didn’t increment the serial number again. Let’s fix that and:
Cucumber says it passed!

It passed! That means I’m done and can tell that to my customer, confident that an error hasn’t slipped through.

What I’ve learned

Having done this for about a year, I’ve learned several things.

  1. There is a cost to testing. If I already have step definitions set up for my test, it only adds a few minutes. If I have to write new step definitions, it takes a lot longer. (Some step definitions, particularly those that have to scrape websites, have taken hours to write.) Even if it only takes a few minutes to set up and run the test, that’s still a few minutes.
  2. Some things cannot or should not be tested directly. In these cases, indirect tests are needed. Instead of verifying the desired behavior, you might need to test the configuration that specifies the desired behavior. Care must be taken when using indirect tests since they are not as reliable as direct tests.

    For example, most tasks involving email delivery or routing should not be tested directly because emails sent for testing would be seen as unwanted noise by the customer or because you do not have the login credentials for the email account. If your customer wants to emails to forwarded to, you can test the mailserver configuration to verify that the forwarding is set up.

  3. Make sure that the test checks everything that is being done. (This is especially true for indirect tests.). If your test only checks part of the functionality, your test may pass but you’re not actually done. For example, if you’re supposed to set up a website that pulls data from a database, make sure you test for content that’s in the database. If you only test for the presence of a string from static content (say, from the template for the site), your test will pass even though you haven’t set up the database privileges correctly.

I believe in testing. Why should you?

Every error has costs. The obvious cost is time: It takes time to fix an error. This time may exceed the original time it took to do the work.

The more important cost is in customer respect and goodwill. Every error that your customers see takes away from the respect and goodwill you’ve built up. Sadly, it’s a lot easier to lose respect than to gain it. If your customers see enough errors from you that you deplete that respect, there will be consequences. Even if they don’t quit our services entirely, they are sure to tell their friends and colleagues that you’re incompetent, untrustworthy, and, perhaps most damning, unprofessional.

“But I don’t have time to test!” you might say. That’s precisely when you should be testing! If you’re doing everything at a breakneck pace, you’re sure to make mistakes. When you’re stressed and overloaded is precisely when you should slow down and do things carefully. Every error you catch now saves you from paying the cost of that error later.

How has this worked out over the past year?

Over the past year, I have tested most of the work I have done. Various reasons have prevented me from testing all of it.

I feel like my customer-visible error rate has decreased significantly. (I don’t have accurate statistics so I don’t know for sure.) Of all of the mistakes that were reported by my customers in the past year, only one has been for work I had tested and that was because the test was not complete. All other reported errors were for untested work. Said another way: My customer-visible error rate for properly tested work is 0%. I think that’s a pretty good track record.

Closing thoughts

Creating tests for checking your work will help you decrease your customer-visible error rate. They won't help you make less errors but they will help you prevent your customers from seeing them.

I recommend trying it out. Write a test for a particular work item, do it, make your test pass. Now do the same for your next work item. And then the one after that. And so on.

09 Apr 18:54

Review: Antichamber is a mind-bending, four-dimensional journey

by Kyle Orland
(video link)

It's easy to write about games that can be compared to other games. "It's like Call of Duty, but in space," or "It's like Gran Turismo, but all the cars feel like they're made of styrofoam" or "It's like the tabletop game Labyrinth, but you're controlling a monkey in a plastic ball." The games that are the most fun to write about, though, are the ones where you struggle to come up with any suitable comparisons.

Sure, you can draw some links between Antichamber and games like Portal. Both games involve wandering through a sterile laboratory and trying to find your way out. Both involve using a gun that doesn't shoot bullets, but does help you find an exit indirectly. And both take place from a first-person perspective. But Antichamber's similarities to Portal—and to most other games—end there.

Understanding Antichamber means forgetting your understanding of pretty much everything you know about how the physical world works. First to go is the idea of object permanence that you developed as a baby. Turn around in Antichamber, and the hallway that was there a second ago can easily be a totally different room. Then the game starts to mess with your ideas of depth perception—you can fall for miles, only to end up just a few feet below where you started.

Read 5 remaining paragraphs | Comments

09 Apr 18:52

Learn Java By Casting Spells, Saving Gnomes in a First-Person Video Game

by Jeff LaSala

What skills does your favorite video game give you? When you’re done burning through the 12+ hours of Bioshock Infinity, what’ll you have to show for it? Probably a few enhanced motor skills and the aesthetic appreciation that comes with being immersed in a compelling story. That’s certainly not nothing. For developing employable, useful skills, though, one game’s got all the rest beat. Computer scientists at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) have created a video game that teaches students how to program in Java by casting spells and saving the world. A world of creepy, creepy little gnomes.

The game, called CodeSpells, is a first-person, problem-solving adventure game, where the player takes the role of a wizard exploring a fantasy world inhabited by…well, they’re calling them gnomes, but I’m not so sure. They also look a lot like aliens, or strange little ghosts. In order to help the “gnomes” get their magic back, you’ll have complete a series of quests in which you solve puzzles by make things levitate or burst into flame. To cast those spells, though, you’ll first need to write them — in Java.

CodeSpells is aimed at elementary and high school students, which means kids these days will get all the good programming jobs before you do. Unless you get your hands on this game, too. Sarah Esper, one of the lead graduate students involved in the game, tested it on a group of 40 girls of ages 10 to 12 who had no prior exposure to programming. Within an hour of playing, the girls had mastered fundamentals of Java and thereby surpassed my knowledge of computer programming. They were also reportedly disappointed when the test was over, because it meant they had to stop playing.

Here’s the CodeSpells demo from last year to give you a sense of what it looks and feels like. It’s no World of Warcraft graphically, but as far as educational games go, it puts classics like Math Blasters and Reader Rabbit to shame.

Researchers point out that teaching computer science courses prior to college can be difficult, because qualified instructors are hard to come by. Sneak that training directly into a video game, though, and kids — and let’s face it, adults — will be engaged enough to start picking up the basics on their own. That’s the aim, anyway.

The study was presented at the SIGSE conference in March. William Griswold, a computer scientist at the Jacobs School of Engineering at UCSD and one of the developers of the game, said that CodeSpells is the only video game out there that integrates computer programming into gameplay, and that the ultimate goal remains to make the game available, for free, to any educational institution interested in it.

“We’re hoping that they will get as addicted to learning programming as they get addicted to video games,” said Stephen Foster, another lead student in the study.

I certainly like the idea of video games that you technological skills. But is anyone as freaked out by the “gnomes” in this game as I am?

Dude. That's a zipper.

They look like something you would find skittering about in Coraline or any Tim Burton movie, just waiting to steal your children. Or worse, the Silent Hill franchise.

(PhysOrg, images courtesy of YouTube and Jacobs School of Engineering/UC San Diego)

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09 Apr 17:24

That Moment When Your Crush Runs Into You

That Moment When Your Crush Runs Into You

Submitted by: Unknown (via Lost Boy Toph)

Tagged: gifs , critters , cute , crushes , rabbits Share on Facebook
08 Apr 23:17

Where'd You Go, Bernadette: funny/dark novel about the disintegration of a Microsoft family

by Mark Frauenfelder

My wife Carla has been reading some excellent books in her book salon. One of them was Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, which I reviewed here. More recently, she handed me her copy of Where'd You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple, and told me I was going to love it, and she was right! It's a tremendously entertaining work of social satire combined with a mystery that kept me wondering what would happen next right up to the end.

Bernadette Fox lives with her husband, Elgie, in Seattle. Twenty years ago, Elgie and Bernadette lived in Los Angeles. Elgie had been an animator and Bernadette had been an up-and-coming architect. But then two things happened: Elgie sold his company to Microsoft, and Bernadette suffered a terrible event. Now they live in a decrepit old house (that used to be a home for wayward girls) on a hill in Seattle with their daughter Bee, who attends Galer Street, an expensive private school filled with the kids of Microsoft's top managers.

Bernadette doesn't like the other Galer Street parents. In fact, she doesn't like anyone besides Bee and Manjula, her 75-cents-an-hour virtual assistant from India who performs all manner of tasks for the agoraphobic and antisocial Bernadette. In turn, the other parents despise Bernadette for her aloofness and refusal to volunteer at Bee's school. And Elgie offers little support: he's too busy heading a project that he thinks will change the world, and the fact that many other people think so (he gave the 4th most watched TED Talk in history about his creation, called Samantha 2), allows him to justify his 80-hour workweeks.

Author Maria Semple tells the story through email messages between school parents, emails from Bernadette to her assistant Manjula, psychiatric evaluations, and other Internet communications, interspersed with notes from Bee. There's a reason the story is presented this way, which readers discover near the end of the book. We also learn the terrible secret of what happened to Bernadette in Los Angeles, and why she suddenly disappeared the day before she was supposed to go on a vacation with Elgie and Bee to Antarctica.

One of my favorite things about Where'd You Go, Bernadette, besides the entertaining characters and takedown of private-school/TED/Microsoft culture, was the sheer unpredictability of the story. I had no idea what I was in store from one scene to the next. But everything tied together, and as a stickler for satisfying endings, Where'd You Go, Bernadette nailed it.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette


08 Apr 23:13

The U.S. Collects Less In Taxes Than All But Two Industrialized Countries

by Travis Waldron

President Obama and Senate Democrats have presented deficit reduction plans that would rely on both spending cuts and increased tax revenues, but Republicans continue to insist that the U.S. has only a “spending problem” and that deficit reduction does not require new revenues.

The premise of the argument from Republicans is that Americans already face an extraordinarily heavy tax burden. Citizens for Tax Justice, however, compared levels of taxation in 2010 in the other industrialized countries that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and found that the U.S. not only collects far less in tax revenues than the average OECD country, but that it also collects less in taxes as a share of its economy than all but two other OECD nations, as the chart at right shows.

The U.S. share of taxes has likely increased slightly since 2010, the latest year for which OECD data is available, because of tax increases from Obamacare and from the fiscal cliff deal that restored Clinton-era tax rates on all incomes above $450,000. Those increases likely won’t push the U.S. up the chart and would leave it well short of the OECD average. Similar data for corporate taxes shows that the U.S. collects less than all but one other OECD countries.

The U.S. has historically collected less in taxes and spent less than the majority of its OECD counterparts, in part because it operates such a stingy social safety net that doesn’t assist the least fortunate in society as well as programs in other countries do. Still, the chart shows that the U.S. is far from a high-tax country, and Democratic offers to raise modest amounts of revenues in the budget process would hardly send the nation’s level of taxation through the roof.

08 Apr 22:09

The U.S. Collects Less In Taxes Than All But Two Industrialized Countries

by Travis Waldron

President Obama and Senate Democrats have presented deficit reduction plans that would rely on both spending cuts and increased tax revenues, but Republicans continue to insist that the U.S. has only a “spending problem” and that deficit reduction does not require new revenues.

The premise of the argument from Republicans is that Americans already face an extraordinarily heavy tax burden. Citizens for Tax Justice, however, compared levels of taxation in 2010 in the other industrialized countries that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and found that the U.S. not only collects far less in tax revenues than the average OECD country, but that it also collects less in taxes as a share of its economy than all but two other OECD nations, as the chart at right shows.

The U.S. share of taxes has likely increased slightly since 2010, the latest year for which OECD data is available, because of tax increases from Obamacare and from the fiscal cliff deal that restored Clinton-era tax rates on all incomes above $450,000. Those increases likely won’t push the U.S. up the chart and would leave it well short of the OECD average. Similar data for corporate taxes shows that the U.S. collects less than all but one other OECD countries.

The U.S. has historically collected less in taxes and spent less than the majority of its OECD counterparts, in part because it operates such a stingy social safety net that doesn’t assist the least fortunate in society as well as programs in other countries do. Still, the chart shows that the U.S. is far from a high-tax country, and Democratic offers to raise modest amounts of revenues in the budget process would hardly send the nation’s level of taxation through the roof.


08 Apr 20:42

Kansas City Filmfest Brony Documentary Screening Information - Pizza Party with Lauren, Dinner with Discord, and More

by Sethisto

This April 10th through the 14th,  the Kansas City Filmfest will be rollin with a bunch of pony centered events in honor of the Brony Documentary that will be displayed for the world to see.  Included in the schedule are Q&A's witht he filmmaker and John de Lancie, special dinner events, a pizza party with with Lauren Faust, and a DJ party to top it all off.  Head on down below the break for all the information on it via press release!

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