What Einstein decided it was a good idea to automatically send email when a virus is detected? I'm getting a bunch of bounces a day from copies of MyDoom that were forged from me. comp.lang.python is overrun, too.
  2004-01-29 19:15 Z
How do you set the closing price of a stock? You'd think it would be simple: the last trade of the day. But in a decentralized electronic market like NASDAQ there's no single auction, no single price. Today's NYT has a clear article explaining the problems that arise. The S&P 500 is experimenting with switching away from NASDAQ to the American Stock Exchange to set closing prices. AMEX is a traditional centralized human-mediated market; a single specialist making book means you have a single price.
The fascinating story here is the manipulation of closing process by "spraying":
a series of minimally sized orders, e.g., 100 shares, immediately prior to the open or close that, based on the amount of displayed size, outstrips short-term liquidity and creates excessive price movement on a temporary basis
By jamming in a bunch of orders at the last second you can force a price swing. Why would you do that? Because a lot of compound securities are pegged to the closing price of individual stocks on NASDAQ. Crazy!

According to NASDAQ Head Trader Alert #2003-093 they have some quantitative process to detect spraying; when they find it, they take an average price from the last 15-30 seconds. Another interesting nugget is AMEX's memo to the SEC in November 2003. It's in response to NASDAQ trying to block the S&P change, basically explaining that this is a good change and AMEX has no say in it anyway.

The real problem is the notion of a 'closing price' at all. Why not trade 24 hours a day? It will happen soon enough. The world gets faster.

  2004-01-29 17:06 Z
Since complaining two days ago about being overbilled by AT&T, my phone has been shut off entirely. No explanation. They do a great sending me spam email, spam SMS, and junk mail, but they can't tell me why they shut off my service.

I suspect they think I owe them money. I tried calling but, guess what? Due to heavy call volume your wait will be over 10 minutes. And their hold music is offsensive, a mixture of advertising, static, and volume changes that guarantees you can't concentrate on anything while it's on speakerphone.

I am amazed at AT&T's contempt for its customers.

Update 2004-01-31: turns out it was not a billing problem. Pulling the SIM card out and putting it back in fixed it.
  2004-01-29 01:36 Z
I've now spent three months trying to straighten out a cell phone bill. I upgraded to GSM in the middle of November's AT&T's customer service meltdown. Long story short: it took two weeks to get my phone working again and at the end of it I was being billed for three numbers.

Now there's nothing I can do to straighten this out. Calling support results in 10-50 minute hold times. Email support is not empowered to help. Every three weeks I accumulate enough patience to wait through the horrible hold music. The person always politely and confidently assures me that she has fixed everything. Then I get another bill with another improper charge.

I realize this is fairly dull blog-fodder. Hostile customer service is so horrible precisely because there's nothing a person can do but rant impotently. I even tried going the regulatory route, but near as I can tell there is no consumer protection from cell phone companies that overcharge you and don't provide adequate customer care.

  2004-01-26 17:08 Z
The spam tuneup I performed last month is working well. I certainly feel like I'm seeing less spam. The stats are good too. 3100 of the messages I received this month were classified as spam (that's ⅔ of my mail!). Of those 3100, 2900 were caught by the Bayesian detector with 99% confidence. About 1200 were caught by Vipul's Razor and about 1200 were caught by Pyzor.

Bottom line: the Bayesian stuff really works if you train it. The collaborative things are helpful but not complete.

  2004-01-25 18:23 Z
WarioWare is a fantastically crazy silly GameBoy game. Or rather, a collection of 200 "microgames". These fun homages to classic gaming are hurled at you in rapid succession with fantastic pacing and production. You get 5 seconds to figure out each game and win it: sink a putt, dodge cars, shoot a space invader. As GameSpy's review says, "Finally, a game in which crack may actually enhance one's performance."
The official site reproduces some of the experience in Flash, but it's not quite the same as the propulsive immersion of the real thing. See also fansite and FAQ.
  2004-01-24 20:17 Z
The most effective debugging tool is still careful thought, coupled with judiciously placed print statements.
— Brian Kernighan, UNIX for Beginners, 1979.
Twenty-five years later this still seems true. Most programmers I know debug by printing stuff out. Even Linus Torvalds has famously criticized debuggers.

Why is that? It's not technology - there are some beautiful integrated debuggers that let you hook deep into running code and poke around. And it's not ignorance, at least for me - I've had many happy experiences with fancy debuggers in the past. But I still keep going back to printing stuff out.

Why? For me it's about simplicity. Running a debugger on an active process is often awkward. And it's a bit spooky: I never quite fully understand what's going on. Still I can't help but feel like I'm working with stone age tools.

  2004-01-24 19:01 Z
The media, too lazy to report on actual issues in the Democratic primaries, have taken to branding Dean "angry". As if that were a bad thing.

We have a suspiciously elected president who lied to the American public to build a case to invade Iraq. ("Let them eat yellowcake".) His vice president's former company is making huge, fraudulent bank on the deal. His attorney general is systematically dismantling civil liberties, detaining citizens in secret with no due process. And that's just foreign policy. Let's not overlook the ruinous financial policy that is digging America deeper into debt so that his friends don't have to pay taxes.

Isn't anger an appropriate response?

  2004-01-23 17:35 Z
I bought my first MP3 today, from Warp Records' Bleep. It's online music done right: reasonable prices, good encoding, no stupid DRM. And buying direct from the label makes it easier to buy more obscure releases from Aphex Twin, Autechre, Boards of Canada, Plaid, etc.
The legendary Twoism, originally issued in a limited vinyl-only pressing on BoC's own Music70 label. Before this reissue and CD release in November 2002, copies were changing hands on Ebay for up to £800

The MP3s are well encoded via Lame 3.90 --alt-preset standard resulting in VBR with rates around 175kbps. The files have good ID3v2 tags (but lousy names). And the downloads are fast, 100kbytes/sec or better.

The usability on the UI is good although I'm not wild about the monolithic Flash app with tiny fonts. The music preview option works well. My only real complaint is they don't let me download stuff forever: you're responsible for keeping track of the files yourself.

Buying music online makes so much sense. I could buy Autechre EP7 for $13 on Amazon and wait a week to get a CD I'll rip and then store forever, or I can download it on Bleep for $7. And I'd rather pay a few bucks than try to steal a crappy, incomplete copy online.

  2004-01-17 19:13 Z
Note to webapp developers: the + character is a valid part of an email address. Don't stop me from using it. And fix your broken CGI parsing so + isn't treated as space.

The + has a very useful meaning in almost all mailers: stuff after it is ignored. Ie, xyzzy@example.com and xyzzy+foo@example.com are basically treated as the same email address by example.com's mailer. Both addresses deliver to the mailbox owned by xyzzy. This has been a feature of sendmail for at least 10 years. It works in Postfix and qmail, too.

The plus sign makes it easier to track how your email address is spread around. If I ever get email to nelson+cheapviagra@monkey.org, I know who to blame. It's also helpful if you're debugging webapps and need to create email-keyed accounts.

  2004-01-17 18:32 Z
Call me ungrateful, but I'm unimpressed with Bush's Mars announcement. It's not really a plan - there's no funding, there's no technology initiative, no particular insight except "um, go to the moon first". It's baldly political. And with a first deliverable 16 years in the future, it's free of presidential responsibility.

In the meantime the US is already at Mars via robotic landers. With a less than 50% success rate to Mars it seems prudent to send robots instead of people. Better science too — concentrate on investigation rather than protecting fragile humans. Space telescopes like Hubble or WMAP seem much more valuable (and cheaper) than planting a flag and radioing the president from Mars.

I understand the romance of sending people to space. But aren't we past that? And it's not like we can do both: without significant new funding what this Mars program means is that we don't have resources for robotic missions, space telescopes, etc. For the next forty years NASA is all about flinging meat to Mars.

PS: this editorial calling for one-way manned trips to Mars is pretty interesting.

  2004-01-15 16:39 Z
The NYT has a great science article on a new map of the universe from Princeton astronomers.

The 600 x 4200 GIF is beautiful, particularly the fine grained structure in the Sloan survey. start at the bottom and scroll up to see a logarithmic view. Read the article for more info. The Princeton site also has higher res maps, and there's some Slashdot discussion.

I've been on a map kick lately. I just bought The Times Atlas of the World, a giant beautiful atlas with huge amounts of political detail. I'm now eagerly awaiting the DK Great World Atlas, which hopefully has more geographical data.

Maps help me understand how the world (or universe) fits together. Hugh Johnson's World Atlas of Wine is the single thing that best helped me to understand wine. Somehow cementing my fuzzy taste-memory to concrete cartographic representations made wine make sense.

Drawing good maps is hard. For some more on the politics of world map projections, this essay is quite informative.

  2004-01-13 16:58 Z
Flying on an airplane in the US will soon require a criminal background check. Don't worry. Minipax says there's nothing wrong. You have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide. Unless you're part of the 4% false positive rate. Or if the DOJ takes this opportunity to extend their investigatory powers beyond air safety.

The EFF is fighting CAPPS II, as is the ACLU. The airlines aren't particularly interested in going along either.

  2004-01-13 16:48 Z
I'll be speaking at the O'Reilly Emerging Technologies Conference in San Diego, Feb 11 2004. O'Reilly and Associates has an amazing ability to collect smart and interesting geeks. I've really enjoyed their past ETech conferences, looking forward to this one. I hope to see you there!

My talk is Google is Harder Than it Looks. I gave a talk kind of like this at Gnomedex last year that went well.

  2004-01-10 19:24 Z
One of my favourite things about going to Canada is the Caesar cocktail. On first blush it's just a Bloody Mary with clam juice in it. But it's much better. In Canada they make them well, they make them spicy, and they make them often. Ask for a Bloody Mary in the US and you're likely to get a strange look and a glass of tomato juice with some vodka in it. Ask for a Caesar in Canada and you get a lovely well made drink. The clam juice is pretty good, too.
4 parts clamato
1 part vodka
salt and pepper
tabasco or horseradish
lime juice
worcestershire sauce
celery salt on rim
So now you know why Clamato exists. More on MetaFilter.
  2004-01-10 18:37 Z
Something really terrific is happening at West Restaurant in Vancouver, Canada. Fantastic menu, skillful combination of flavours and top quality local ingredients. Excellent service and room. I've been to enough fine restaurants to know when something is particularly special. West.

The New Year's Eve tasting menu, a 3 hour meal:

Tofino Dungeness Crab Salad with Granny Smith Apple
Seared Foie Gras with Apricot and Carmelized Boudin Blanc
Crispy Spot Prawn Salad with Pineapple, Daikon and Mint Salad
Nutmeg Gnocchi with Pecorino Pepato, 25 y.o. Modena Balsamic
Boneless Lamb Chop with Eggplant Caviar and Roasted Artichoke
L'Edel De Celeron Cheese, Apple and Currant Raisin Compote
Lemon and Lovage Sorbet
Honey Tangerine and Chocolate Souffle Tart
I've only had such innovative and sastifying food a few times. The wine pairings were perfect, expert sommelier.
  2004-01-07 17:39 Z