Friday, December 12, 2008

Time to celebrate!

Yesterday was a very important day of celebration for me.

It marked the last day of 2008 that I will enter or leave O'Hare Airport.

According to American Airlines, I traveled 128,053 miles on their jet planes this year.

Terrible way to spend a life. Well, of course, it could be much worse. I have little about which I could complain in my life. Except for being away from family, friends and home.

Now, however, I am home. It is freezing cold outside my home, but warm inside. I am happy and content.

I will not, should not have to return to O'Hare until January 12 -- and that will be for a trip to Puerto Rico.

Not so awful, I suppose....

A whole class of truly stupid television commercials

You've heard of HDTV, right? High definition television. It promises brighter colors, crisper sound, blah, blah, blah. All right, so say it is all true. How do you convince people that they should buy a HDTV (besides lobbying our elected representatives to pass a law mandating a switch to digital signals and a required switch in equipment)?

By showing them just how wonderful HDTV will be.

And how do the TV manufacturers do that? You (Sony, Panasonic, LG, etc.) buy time to run ads promoting your incredible products.

So here I am, sitting on my couch, watching ads in order to get back to the Daily Show or the Colbert Report (the only regularly scheduled TV I watch). And on comes an ad for HDTV.

The ad features lots of bright colors and vigorous motion and loud sounds.

"Wow!" I guess I am supposed to exclaim to my wife. "Isn't that HD great? I sure wish I had a TV that could show me those bright colors and let me hear all those incredible sounds...."

And then since my wife is not a guy and therefore not easily captivated by gadgets, she might say back to me:

"Dummy! You like those colors and sounds? Well, you're watching all that on your own television, right now."

Hmmm. I am suspicious. Is she playing a trick on me? My Primitive Man Brain wants a new shiny skinny high-def TV. But my Rational Man Brain has a hard time arguing with her logic.

And don't you, too? Isn't it a bit ridiculous for companies to promote the radically new and better resolution of an HDTV on a non-HD TV by showing how much better it will be?

Monday, December 08, 2008

A very odd job

Have you heard of World of Warcraft? It is a "massively multiplayer online role-playing game" (ahem, MMORPG) played over the Internet simultaneously by millions of people. The more you play, the more powers and weapons and so forth you accumulate (assuming you are not entirely incompetent). But what if you don't have enough time to do that? Wouldn't it be "great" (assuming you find anything about losing yourself in videogames to be "great") if you could simply buy these powers and weapons?

The maker of the World of Warcraft does not allow you to do this, so of course a "black market" arose to fill the need. Here's the quote from Wired magazine about this:

"Internet Gaming Entertainment, or IGE, made hundreds of millions of dollars as middleman for Western gamers eager to outsource the boring aspects of play to low-wage third worlders. The people who founded the company realized that scarcity of time and scarcity of virtual resources created a whole new market."


"Despite the game companies' widespread prohibition of such transactions, their number has grown to support an estimated $2 billion annual trade, a half dozen multimillion-dollar online retail businesses, and an enormous Chinese workforce earning 30 cents an hour playing MMOs and harvesting treasure to supply the major retailers."

Now that is a very odd job: sitting around and playing videogames specifically to accumulate "treasure" that can then be sold to people who are able to attach a greater value to their lives than the "enormous Chinese workforce."

We live in a very strange world. For the full article:

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Sister and Moshe: a phase of our lives ends

For many years now, we have had three cats in our house: Sister Itsakat (aka, Dinosaur Kitty), Moshe Jacobawitz (aka, Baby Seal Cat) and Mica (aka, Kangaroo Cat). Now, sadly, there is just one survivor: Mica.

Back in August, we put Moshe to sleep. He had diabetes and we have long sworn that we would not become caretakers (and, frankly, financiers) for deathly ill kitties. [Note: I wrote this originally in March 2008. Moshe then managed to live till the end of July, far longer than expected. We finally had to euthanize him, because he had lost half his body weight and we had to leave for an extended holiday. The vet clearly felt that we had already waited too long and he had likely been suffering. We felt bad.]

Sister died last year, just kind of stopped eating and then stopped breathing, once her thyroid medicine had no discernible impact.

They were both about fourteen years old at time of death.

Even though Mica is left, she is a rather late arrival to our home, having rescued her some five years ago from the home of our older son, Chris. A rescue was necessary because Mica was born with only three functioning legs and lots of internal organ abnormalities. Extensive surgery kept her alive, but the other two, big, black, aggressive cats in Chris' home made her life a bit uncomfortable.

Here's a picture of Mica.

So we took in Mica, but Sister and Moshe had been with us since Eli was seven, just after we moved into our Rogers Park home, and they were a part of our lives for a long, long time - and almost all of Eli's growing up.

And so I thought I would pay homage to Sister and Moshe.

Sister showed up one day in our backyard, just wandered in, almost certainly looking for food. She was a beautiful gray cat and she was impossibly skinny. Must have run away from her home or gotten lost, and didn't really have the hunting skills necessary to live on mice and rats outdoors.

Eli was obsessed with dinosaurs in those days. He put together dinosaur skeletons from kits, read magazines about dinosaurs, and so on.

Sister was so skinny that when Eli saw her, he said: "Mom, that cat looks like a dinosaur!" because her bones were stuck out so sharply.

Veva had some leftover salmon in the refrigerator. They fed it to the starving cat and she decided that there was no reason to leave our backyard. We took her in and Chris named her "Sister Itsacat."

She was always something of a standoffish kitty. She couldn't handle being brushed at all- I don't know if she was the victim of some abuse or maybe her skin was just too sensitive. Her fur was certainly very fine and soft. But she liked to be petted and was very willing to be held. She would just melt over your arms or shoulders. Here's a nice picture of her. And another.

Moshe, well, he was a very different sort of cat.

Soon after moving to Rogers Park, we started spending time at the Nature Center, a small enclave of a park surrounded by residential neighborhoods, a senior citizens home (actually a large complex of building), a university, and a cemetery. We volunteered there, helping to maintain the trails, and visited for holiday celebrations. The Center itself boasted a small "zoo" of sorts, with a variety of animals found on the property (and usually in need of some medical assistance). It was a wonderful place to be able to take a young boy, growing up in an urban environment like Chicago.

One day when we visited, we found that there were several brand new kittens in the Center. Their mother was a feral cat at the park and rather than have a small gaggle of wild cats growing on the property, they decided to find homes for the kittens. Moshe was one of those kittens.

When we first took him home, he was so small, he could sleep curled up inside Veva's slipper. He was tiny. But it was clear from the very start that he had no intention of staying that way. Sister had a fine appetite, but she didn't act as if eating was the most important activity of her life.

Moshe, on the other hand, was so enthusiastic about eating that he would mush his face into the bowl of food, chomp chomp chomp, and come away with food shmushed all over his face. His enthusiasm quickly paid off. He got big and he got fat.

And he was definitely the Alpha Male of the house, to which this photo can attest.

Yet he always remained at heart a kitten. Even when he clearly tired and arthritic, when getting up and down stairs was clearly painful for him, if I took out a string and dangled it in front of him, he would push himself up and go after that string. I could even get him to chasing his tool (well, when he was young, he really did chase his own tail, but when he was older, he chased the string around and around in a circle).

Moshe would have loved to play with Sister, but she was never the least bit interested in playing with him. In fact, she was very upset when we brought him home. She was never excited about sharing her home, and her salmon, with other cats.

Mica was definitely interested in playing with Moshe, but by then he was a good bit older and it was never clear if he liked playing with her or simply tolerated her. She was (is) much more lively, even with only three legs to hop around on. Plus, we removed both Moshe's and Sister's front claws, but didn't have the heart to do the same thing to Mica. She really only has just one weird claw on one paw.

So Mica would dance around Moshe, taunting him, poking her claw out, and finally Moshe would respond, and they would engage in a short dance. The dance would usually end by Moshe falling over onto Mica. Not much she could do about that, being about 1/4 of his body weight.

So...why, you be wondering, did Veva call Moshe the "Baby Seal Cat"? Because he had this endearing habit of lying on the floor and pulling his front legs up so that looked like a seal.

Moshe really enjoyed life. He enjoyed eating. He enjoyed sleeping. He enjoyed bullying the other cats, especially when it came to food. He like being vacuumed and was very well behaved generally whenever we needed to do anything to him (give him medicine, wash him, etc.). He loved to go out to the backyard and hang out in the sun. And if he somehow made it out of the yard, he never ventured far. This home was all he knew and it fit him just fine.

Sister had a taste of the world beyond our yard and if she got out, she could certainly end up at least several houses away. She was good at chasing down rats and mice, even without front claws. We finally erected an eight foot privacy fence around our house so we could let the cats out into the backyard and they would likely stay in the yard, though Sister would occasionally still find her way out.

Mica was totally a house cat; we could barely even get her to step out the side door and experience the wind on her face. That made her a very smart cat, since she would have been pretty much helpless in the face of the most mild of predators.

Our cats enriched our lives, but also made Veva and Eli perpetually at least a little bit miserable, since they were both allergic to cat dander. now that Sister and Moshe have died, and Mica has moved on to a new home, our house is pet free and pet dander free (well, mostly), but also a bit empty feeling.

Maybe someday we will bring a hypoallergenic animal into our lives. But for now....we will be pet-less.

You can find all my photos of our pets here:

And this is a nice one of Moshe and Sister together:

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A wonderful trip to Portugal

At the beginning of November, my wife and I traveled to Portugal for a week. I gave a two day training in Lisbon sponsored by my friends at Dutec; we also spent a weekend in Porto, which is 2.5 hours north of Lisbon, and the home of port wine.

We had a really wonderful time. Carlos and Joao of Dutec were fantastic hosts, very generous with their time, taking us out to dinner each night, taking care of all the details of our stay, putting us up in a very nice hotel, the Villa Rica. One evening, we went to a restaurant with fado singers - that was a great experience!

And in Porto, Manuel of University of Porto put aside his many responsibilities to show us around this beautiful, very old city (continually inhabitated by humans since 1300 BC!). We even got to meet his wife and daughter (Margerita was one of the highlights of my trip!), as well as that of his developer (and first winner of the OPP Test a Thon), Filipe de Silva. Filipe's 14 month old son, Francisco, was a tremendous amount of fun.

You can see photos from our trip at:

Of course, Veva and I also visited Pasteis de Belem, home of some of the finest pastries I have ever tasted in my life (and blogged on previously, including my poem dedicated to these pastries).

A very fine trip, due primarily to our wonderful hosts. Thanks again, Joao and Carlos!

Two thoughts about the economic meltdown


One thing about the government bailouts make me happy: for years, our so-called leaders have told us that there simply isn't enough money to pay for universal health care, decent education for our children, repairing our infrastructure...and many other services that would help millions of our own citizens.

Well, now we know that is all bullshit. Because when the banks and financial services companies started to fail, suddenly there is more than enough money to shower on these Titans of Capitalism. And the extraordinary numbers thrown around in this bailout make the cost of things like universal health care seem downright reasonable.

So I say: if we are going to put our children and grandchildren deeply into debt, let's do it in a way that benefits them and not just a handful of fat cats on Wall Street.


GM, Ford and Chrysler CEOs come to Washington begging for $25B in bailout funds and they are raked over the coals - justifiably. "Where's the plan? How do we know you won't come back for more?" Now, I have mixed feelings about this bailout; these companies are so badly managed. But their collapse will be catastrophic for our economy. At least, however, there was a reasonably public debate over the use of public funds.

But Congress said go away (and come back later with a plan). Oh, and the Bush Admin expressed opposition to giving the Big Three this money.

Days later, after no public debate, no Congressional hearings....Citigroup is handed another $20B of taxpayer dollars. What is their plan, I wonder? How can a company that does nothing but push bytes around in different computers (that's what financial services mostly comes down to, doesn't it?) get a free ride when GM does not?

It's almost as though the Bush Administration is more concerned about making sure rich people stay rich than middle class and poor Americans keep their homes. Huh.

Catching up with old trips

I have uploaded hundreds of photos from trips to Europe and India I have token in the past few years. You can find them all at my flickr site:

I am sorry that I do not have comments about these photos (some don't even have real names). I hope you can simply enjoy the images....

Friday, November 14, 2008

Time for another vote!

OK, so Barack Obama was elected President of the United States.


I don't expect that he will be able to reverse the decline of the American Empire, but he sure is a sight for sore eyes and ears and brains and conscience. And to think that Americans could see their way to electing a non-white old male to be their President. I am more hopeful than I have been in a long, long time.

Anyway, that election is done with and now I am writing to ask your help for another election: vote for my son, Chris, in a remix competition! Chris sent out this email today, and I pass it on to all of you.

From Chris Silva,

Hello friends, fam and recipients of my spam!

I know many of you may not have heard from me in quite a while since I've been in serious hermit mode and taken a considerable break from the business of visual art and the relentless hustle that is needed to sustain that career. But I'm back and asking for your support in my venture to make music a more solid part of my existence. I have realized that creating music is too important an aspect of who I am and it would be fantastic if it could start bringing in some income at some point too.

So here's where you come in!.

Below is the link to my entry to this Roots "Criminal" remix contest:

So please hook me up with a vote! Just click the link above and press "vote for me" on the page you are redirected to. Then, if I make it to the top 25 then I can actually compete in a real remix competition.

The determination of winners for this first round is really lame (didn't realize this until after the fact)…basically a self-promo battle for votes. I guess the judges didn't want to have to listen to 310 remixes to determine what was actually good. But I worked hard on my track and feel its good enough to be in the top 25, so I'm giving it a shot.

The top 25 finalists will advance to Round 2. For Round 2, The Roots will make another track from Rising Down available to be remixed by the 25 finalists, and thankfully there be 3 judges making the final decision.

Oh, and "L.C. Rivers"...that's me. Lavish Catastrophe Rivers is an anagram of Christopher Tavares Silva and is what I'm using as my music production identity.

Much love to all!


Sunday, November 09, 2008

Play games to become a better developer

I recently posted two entries on my ToadWorld blog that I thought you might like to see:

Play games to become a better developer!

Software development is one heck of a serious job. It turns out, however, that there are several games you can play to improve the quality of code you write. This is the second of two blog entries that introduce you to two of my favorite brain development and training games: Set and Mastermind. Play either (preferably both) of these games, and you will write better software. [ Note that I do not include Solitaire in this list. Playing this game will definitely not help you become a better developer, but it will pass the time. ]
I even encourage you to play these games on company time, with management approval. It will be a good investment by your employer. Sound crazy? I have been told by a number of my students that their manager did, in fact, agree to do this, and everyone is happy with the results.....

For the full explanations:

Part 1. The Game of Set
Part 2. The Game of Mastermind


Sunday, October 26, 2008

McCain is oh so proud of cute, little Sarah

Is anyone else bothered by McCain's repeated use of the word "proud" to describe how he feels about his vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin?

As in:

"I'm so proud of the way she ignites the crowds. The way she has conducted herself in my view is incredibly admirable," McCain said.

Let's suppose for a moment that McCain hadn't plucked Palin out of relative obscurity (at the urging of the ultra-right in this country, most notably Rush Limbaugh, who started pushing for her as the GOP VP candidate back in February 2008).

Suppose he had picked Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani.

Can you imagine John McCain saying over and over again:

"I'm so proud of Rudy, the way he responded to 9/11."

Doesn't that sound just a wee bit condescending? Like McCain is her dear, old Uncle, patting her on the head?

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Doing SQL in PL/SQL: a key resource from Bryn Llewellyn

One of the highlights of Oracle Open World 2008 for me was the presentation by Bryn Llewellyn (PL/SQL Product Manager) on 'Doing SQL in PL/SQL: best and worst practices.'

Bryn surely has the most thorough and clear understanding of the PL/SQL language of anyone I have met (definitely including me).

His talk was detailed and precise (and maybe just a little bit overwhelming. He needed twice the time allotted) on this most important topic.

The bad news about this talk is that most PL/SQL developers will never be able to hear Bryn present it.

The good news is that everything he talks about (and more) may be found in a newly published whitepaper of the same name.

Simply visit the Oracle Technology Network PL/SQL Homepage and click on the hyperlink for that paper.

Notice also that Bryn has published an in-depth whitepaper on SQL injection, a very serious and widespread security risk in many applications.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Quick Tip: Oracle11g function result cache

I just realized it's been a little while since I offered some PL/SQL thoughts on this blog. Sorry, the election campaign is twisting around my priorities. So how about if I share with you what I believe is far and away the most important new feature for PL/SQL developers in Oracle11g: the function result cache.

Suppose you have a table that is queried frequently (let's say thousands of times a minute) but is only updated once or twice an hour. In between those changes, that table is static. Now, most PL/SQL developers have developed a very bad habit: whenever they need to retrieve data they write the necessary SELECT statement directly in their high-level application code. As a result, their application must absorb the overhead of going through the SQL layer in the SGA, over and over again, to get that unchanging data.

If, on the other hand, you put that SELECT statement inside its own function and then define that function as a result cache, magical things happen. Namely, whenever anyone in that database instance calls the function, Oracle first checks to see if anyone has already called the function with the same input values. If so, then the cached return value is returned without running the function body. If the inputs are not found, then the function is executed, the inputs and return data is stored in the cache, and then the data is sent back to the user. The data is never queried more than once from the SQL layer - as long as it hasn't changed. As soon as anyone connected to that instance commits changes to a table on which the cache is dependent, Oracle invalidates the cache, so that the data will have to be re-queried (but just once). You are, as would be expected inside an Oracle database, guaranteed to always see clean, correct data.

Why would you do this? Because the performance improvements are dramatic. In the 11g_emplu.pkg script (available in the at PL/SQL Obsession), I compare the performance of a normal database query via a function to a function result cache built around the same query and I see these results:

Execute query each time Elapsed: 5.65 seconds.
Oracle 11g result cache Elapsed: .30 seconds.

Isn't that just amazing and incredible and wonderful? Here's the original version of the function (over 5 seconds):

FUNCTION onerow (employee_id_in IN employees.employee_id%TYPE)
onerow_rec employees%ROWTYPE;
INTO onerow_rec
FROM employees
WHERE employee_id = employee_id_in;

RETURN onerow_rec;
END onerow;
END emplu;

and here's the result cache version:

FUNCTION onerow (employee_id_in IN employees.employee_id%TYPE)
onerow_rec employees%ROWTYPE;
INTO onerow_rec
FROM employees
WHERE employee_id = employee_id_in;

RETURN onerow_rec;
END onerow;
END emplu;

Can you see the difference? Not much of a change, right? I just added that single RESULT_CACHE line. And notice that I would not have to change any of the code that was already calling this function.

Here's the bottom line regarding the function result cache: get ready now to take advantage of this feature. Stop writing SELECT statements directly into your application code. Instead, hide your queries in functions so that you can easily convert to result caches when you upgrade to Oracle11g.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Sarah Palin, the lipstick-coated, pitbull-mannered Stepford Wife

I watched the VP debate. Yep, there is no doubt about it: we now know that if Sarah Palin is given a month to prepare for a debate, then she will not totally screw things up. In fact, what we found is that she will be able to pretty much ignore whatever question is presented to her and instead spit out her pre-programmed statements.

And she will do it in an aggressive, condescending manner that indeed makes one think of a pitbull with lipstick and very nice $400 eyeglasses.

Doggone it, but she reminded me so much of a Stepford Wife. She just didn't seem entirely human.

Well, that does it, then. I will vote for Obama.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Could they at least APOLOGIZE for f#@king up our country?

For years now, people on the left have declared the US economy a "house of cards" built on debt and by transferring wealth from the middle class and poor to the rich. I include myself in this group, as you can verify by reading back through my blog.

And for those same years, the media and our elected officials bowed down to the so-called leaders of our great nation: Alan Greenspan, Warren Buffet, T. Boone Pickens and the other exorbitantly-paid CEOs who steered the great ship of the greatest example of the wonders of capitalism. They could do no wrong, they could not earn enough money, and they bristled whenever anyone talked about maybe giving the middle class a tax cut. ("Class warfare!" went the cry)

And for those same years, we doubters of the wonders of the "free market" have been vilified and mocked. Naive! Communist! Ignorant!

Now, sadly, it must be said: We were right. We of the left, we of the Naive Class, we Americans who never believed that a CEO was worth 500 times the value of a software developer in his company, we bleeding hearts who could never accept that 40 million Americans must have no health care, that tens of millions must go unemployed, that children should go hungry in this country: we were right.

And our so-called leaders were wrong. And not just wrong. Complicit, greedy, corrupt and arrogant.

These days, it is the arrogance that gets me the most.

They are so used to running everything their way, that no one even feels the need, the sense of human decency, to apologize.

Alan Greenspan, who allowed the economy to drift into this horrible state, is no wise man. He is a smart man who knew how to get his bread well buttered. And he does not apologize for his part in this mess.

William Jefferson Clinton, who signed into law deregulation of the financial industry that made this collapse inevitable, is no friend of the people. He is a brilliant politician who always sided with Wall Street. And he does not apologize for his part in this mess.

All those CEOs (from both failed and failing companies), who filled their boards will yes-men and yes-women who agreed to the most obscene pay packages, are not wise men. They are greedy bastards who will not apologize for their parts in this mess.

Keep it up, Leaders of the Free World. Make no apologies, accept no blame and stuff your pockets with every dollar bill (or euro) in sight. Then build some really big walls.

Because if the collapse continues, and if the bailout mainly bails YOU out, then I predict that the American people will shed their sheeps' disguises. They will come boiling out of their homes, full of anger and desperation, and I wonder if any of the walls you build could be tall enough to stop them.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Another aspect of the Bush Legacy

A world-wide race to arm rather than feed our citizens....

US in push for arms deals

The Times, citing Defense Department sales data through the end of August, reported that countries newly reliant on the United States as a primary major weapons source included Argentina, Brazil, India, Iraq, Morocco and Pakistan and former Soviet republics Azerbaijan and Georgia.

Together the countries signed $870 million worth of arms deals with the Bush administration from 2001 to 2004, but in the past four fiscal years the total had increased to $13.8 billion.

From $870M to $13.8B! Fortunately they are going to the most stable and democratic of nations, so we don't have to worry that someday some of these weapons might be used to kill our own citizens.

Seems like George W (or, to put a finer point on it, Dick "Watch Your Head" Cheney) is making sure that all of his friends in the military-industrial complex will be taking dumps in solid gold bathroom fixtures for the rest of their unnatural lives.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A week in life of Travelin' Steven

So the following is what I did this past week:

On Monday morning, I caught an 8:30 AM flite to Los Angeles (a four hour trip). After a two hour stopover, I boarded a 777 to Tokyo. That took 11 hours. After a two hour stopover, which I spent in the wonderful Japan Air Lines First Class Lounge (fantastic massage chairs and the most wonderful service), I got on a 747 bound for SIngapore. Seven hours later, we landed (just after midnight). At 1 Am, I was in my Carlton hotel room on the 7th floor, skyped over to Veva to say hello, yes I made it alive and sane, and then it was time for bed. Woke up at 7 AM (before the darned alarm went off).

By 8:30 I had walked the few blocks in humid, warm (but not yet hot) weather over to the Suntec convention center and up to room 208. There I spent the next 8.5 hours presenting on PL/'SQL technology to 102 Oracle technologists, some 15 of which had even flown in from Thailand. That all went very well, even though Clara of Quest (that rare very competent person who also maintains a vigorous sense of humor) introduced me using a photo of yours truly from the waist up, at age 18 months or so, completely naked. Very cute, eh? Very unusual. I can't really imagine what all the attendees thought of that!

Back to the hotel for a quick workout at the fitness center, then off to dinner with a handful of other Quest Software fellows at Jumbo Seafood in the East Coast Park, where we feasted on the signature Singapore dish: chili crab (and lots of other delights). Then Jason drove me to the Changi airport for a 10:40 PM flight back to Tokyo. Oh, joy.

I really wanted to sleep overnight, but I couldn't drift off. I couldn't get an upgrade for the Singapore-Tokyo flights on Japan Air Lines, and my legs don't like hanging down and stretching out from a regular coach seat. That was too bad. So seven hours later, we disembarked at 6:15 Am at the Narita airport in Tokyo, and I was very tired, in a daze. Back to the First Class Lounge, where I spent the next nine hours waiting for the 4 PM flight to Los Angelos. I spent over an hour total in the massage chair, and had a real (but short - 10 minute) massage by a masseuse, that was very nice.

Then I flew 11 hours back to LA, picked up a rental car, drove to Aliso Viejo where my employer is headquartered, and am now sitting through 1.5 days of meetings, then I fly back home to Chicago on Friday evening.

So let's total this up....between Monday and Friday I will have spent spent:

* Less than 23 hours in Singapore.
* Just two nights in a bed.
* About 45 hours up in the air.
* At least 60 hours in transit (in the plane, waiting for flights, going to and from airports).

That's just crazy. And that's my life, though usually it isn't quite this ridiculous. And I really am going to stop doing all this traveling pretty darn soon. Just not in 2008.

I hope you are all enjoying sleeping in your own beds!

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Butterfly and Leaf - a poem

(what? You thought I only wrote software? Enjoy....)

Butterfly and Leaf

Moca Finca, August 9, 2008
Copyright 2008, Steven Feuerstein

Flickering shadow
of a butterfly
catching the sun
seeking out color:
Alive, for a time.

Fluttering shadow
of a leaf
losing the sun
losing the branch:
Dying, in separation.

My eyes
can't tell the difference.
Living or dying,
the shadow is the same.
It communicates,
it hides.

My eyes
move on,
seeking a shadow
I can trust.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Getting weary, so weary: Big Oil's biggest quarter ever: $51.5B in all

Big Oil sucks us dry once again.

By JOHN PORRETTO, AP Business Writer Fri Aug 1, 5:11 PM ET

HOUSTON - Oil giants Chevron Corp. and Total SA wrapped up a string of gargantuan, record-breaking earnings reports Friday, a stretch in which six of the major international oil companies topped $50 billion in combined profit for the first time.

While the profits of unparalleled size have brought withering criticism from Washington and disgust from consumers across the country, very few were surprised. Crude prices during the second quarter were nearly double what they were a year ago.


It is getting so so hard to even pretend that we live in a democracy. In what sort of democracy do its citizens allow corporations to suck us dry as they repeat the mantra of "supply and demand"? In what sort of democracy does its citizens allow a runaway, renegade, ultra-right government (which admits to hating government and wanting to privatize all) take all our tax dollars and hand them over to banks, financial "services" companies, military-industrial wacko companies like Blackwater - either when they actually blow it so badly they fail or pay off our legislators to hand them big fat no-bid contracts?

The US is not a democracy. It is a plutocracy, with manic edges of theocracy. And it is wearing me down.

I say: start doing some worse case planning.

What are you going to do with they start charging for air?

What are you going to do when the infrastructure of the country collapses (bridges, roads, etc.) and while they continue to pour our tax dollars down black holes of the War Against Extremism, they raise our taxes to theoretically repair that infrastructure (but then another suicide bombing requires another war - sorry, no infrastructure)?

What are you going to do when gas hits $10 a gallon?

If you don't plan for it now, you will be screwed, totally screwed, very soon.

And that is my mid-summer rant. See ya....

Monday, July 21, 2008

My Oracle Open World Schedule

Hey folks,

For anyone attending Oracle Open World this year, here is my schedule of presentations:

Session ID: S300184
Session Title: Weird PL/SQL
Track: Oracle Develop: Database
Room: Golden Gate C3
Date: 2008-09-21
Start Time: 15:45

Session ID: S300183
Session Title: Break Your Addiction to SQL!
Track: Oracle Develop: Database
Room: Salon 02
Date: 2008-09-22
Start Time: 13:00

Session ID: S300185
Session Title: Why You Should Care About Oracle 11g PL/SQL Now
Track: Oracle Develop: Database
Room: Salon 02
Date: 2008-09-23
Start Time: 11:30

Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

How we fill the shopping malls

I don't go shopping very often. I like to buy things, don't get me wrong. But I don't like to shop, don't like the marketing, the noise, the lines.

But when I do go shopping, I am startled by how full the parking lots are and how busy the shops are.

After all, consumer confidence is almost as low as the approval ratings for President Bush. Everyone but the rich are suffering badly and broadly, losing their homes, declaring bankruptcy because a child or parent falls ill, and so on. So how can we Americans keep on buying stuff?

An article in the Tribune confirmed my suspicion (full text at end of this entry): many Americans have simply given up on the idea of ever digging themselves out of their debt hole. So what the hell? Use the credit card! Load it up! Get another one and load up that one! Buy a big LCD TV. Buy a new cell phone. Hey, buy an iPhone! Pay my bill? Maybe. I sure hope so. But since my outstanding balance is already $12000, what difference does it make if I bump it up to $14000 or $20000? Oh and when I have to take my child to the emergency room because I couldn't afford preventive doctor visits, I will put that on my credit card, too. If they will let me.

What a doomed nation....

Borrowing with credit cards surges

Consumers boosted their borrowing in May, mostly reflecting heavy credit card use to finance their purchases.

The Federal Reserve reported Tuesday that consumer credit increased at an annual rate of 3.6 percent in May, roughly the same pace as logged in the prior month.

The pickup pushed total consumer debt up by $7.78 billion, to $2.57 trillion.

The increase was led by much stronger demand for revolving credit, which is primarily credit cards. Use of revolving credit rose at a 7.1 percent pace in May, a month in which a flow of tax rebates helped to energize consumer spending. In April consumers cut back on such credit at a 0.5 percent pace.

Still, the longer-term trend shows that consumers have been charging more of their purchases on credit cards as banks have tightened lending standards on other types of loans.

"Consumer spending was so large in May that consumers used their income tax rebate checks and brought out the plastic as well," said Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi in New York. "This double-dipping approach cannot keep the consumer afloat forever."

Demand for non-revolving credit used to finance cars, education and other things, meanwhile, slowed to a 1.6 percent increase in May. That was down from a growth rate of 6.1 percent in April and was the slowest since December.

Overall, revolving debt jumped $5.69 billion during May and non-revolving debt increased $2.09 billion.

The Fed's measure of consumer borrowing does not include any debt secured by real estate, such as mortgage or home equity loans.

Consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of economic activity.

Friday, June 27, 2008

A confession regarding the Second Amendment

When I first read of the 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court to explicitly recognize the right of an individual, not a militia, to bear arms, I was dismayed.

I still am, but not because I disagreed with them. My dismay is that this decision (really, more the decision to decide on this issue) demonstrates how far along the radical right agenda for this country has proceeded. From the packing of the Supreme Court with the likes Thomas of Scalia, to the extreme politicization of the Justice Department, to the privatization of our military, the Bush Administration is hurrying the American people along to a very dark and troubling place.

Having said that, I have come to accept that I agree with the decision of the Supreme Court regarding the Second Amendment. I do think it is reasonable to conclude that the Second Amendment does support the idea of individuals bearing arms, owning a gun.

I think it is reasonable because the Second Amendment is weirdly ambiguous and terribly ungrammatical ("A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."). As a result, there will never be a clear path to banning arms for individual use entirely.

I also believe it is reasonable given its context. The founders of our nation fought a revolution against tyranny and you can't do that with water pistols. If individuals are not allowed to own weapons, then how can we defend ourselves against a government that takes away our freedoms (like the Bush Administration is doing) and is ready to use state violence against us to accomplish their goals (what the Bush Administration is not yet doing on a widespread basis)?

No, I think we should all accept the reality that given our constitution and bill of rights, we must allow individuals to own weapons -- but not all individuals and not any weapon (this is pretty much what Scalia said in his statement as well).

The problem in our country is not the Second Amendment and not the idea that an individual can open a weapon. The problem in the US is that we allow extremist, fundamentalist zealots to set policy.

We should concentrate all efforts on removing NRA influence on our legislators (and more generally end corporate and lobbyist bribing of our politicians) so that we can have sane, reasonable laws passed to enact tight controls on gun ownership in this country.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Without logic we are truly lost...

When I train developers, I like to point out that they (we) are very special people: we use symbolic logic day in and day out to do our jobs. Why does that make us special? Logic forms the foundation not only of software programming, but more generally of "civilization" as we know it. Cell phones, the Internet, cars, medicines -- anything manufactured -- all follow from two wonderful developments in our evolution: an opposable thumb and logic.

Logic is also tightly linked to critical thinking: it is hard to tell when somebody is pulling the wool over your eyes, when you cannot logically identify flaws in their arguments. When, however, your brain is well-trained to move from assumptions to conclusions via clearly defined rules of logic, it is much easier to (a) solve problems, (b) challenge bogus arguments, and (c) avoid voting against your own self-interest.

I ran across a great example of such manipulation through explicit violation of logical thinking in the latest issue of Discover magazine. The title of the article is "Medicine's Magic Bullets?" and it is another in a seemingly endless stream of seriously bad news regarding the way that pharmaceutical companies lie and manipulate "research" data to get FDA approval for their drugs. Before I get to the part about logic, here's one quote to give you a feel for what I am talking about:

"One reason many doctors overlook risks and believe statins to be safe is that most controlled studies of stains wind up excluding people who originally began to participate in a study but stop taking the drug because they experience problems with it; these test participants are then dropped from the study as 'non-compliant.'"

Please do stop for a moment and think about that.

OK, now on to my main point regarding logic: this article talks about how pharmaceutical companies can camouflage unfavorable results through "combination end points."

Hmmm. "Combination end point" - what might that be? Well, a drug can be tested for multiple outcomes, such as heart failure and blood pressure. That surely sounds reasonable.

But then we learn that:

"By combining two or more of these outcomes to create a single category, you can say it helped 'A and B' even if it only helped A and not B. For example, although there was no statistically significant effect from tPA in the NINDS trial on the number of patients who died, there was a small decrease in disability for those who survived. With those two factors combined, there was technically a decrease in the combination end point of 'death and disability.'"

I would like to think that at this point, the mouth of any and every software developer reading the above paragraph will be hanging open in disbelief.

For those who might still have their mouth closed, allow me to explain:

When you say "A AND B", that is only true if both A is true and B is true. If either are false, then "A and B" is also false. If, on the other hand, you assert "A OR B", then only one of the two need to be true to render the whole statement true.

So when the author writes "you can say it helped" and "technically a decrease", I have to ask myself: precisely who can say that the statement "A AND B" is true even if B is false? And what technology is being referred to there? The technology of anti-logic?

I am shocked first of all that Discover's author would not explicitly point out the fundamental logical flaw of this "combination end point" bullshit.

And I am afraid, very afraid, for a nation in which...

* a critical regulatory agency like the FDA can accept such blatantly false thinking as a path to approving drugs which can and do kill people on a regular basis.

* citizens can read such things and not realize that they are being treated with disdain, are beging manipulated and, ultimately, put at risk of illness and death in order to improve the profit margins of corporations like Genentech (the maker of tPA, which is the main subject of the Discover article).

Friday, June 06, 2008

My presentations at Oracle Open World 2008

In case you are interested, I will be presenting three times at OOW in San Fran this September. The dates/times have not yet been set, but here are the IDs and titles:

Session ID: S300183
Session Title: Break Your Addiction to SQL!

Session ID: S300184
Session Title: Weird PL/SQL

Session ID: S300185
Session Title: Why You Should Care about Oracle11g PL/SQL Now!

Hope to see some of you there!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

"Clinton exposes Obama's vulnerability: white voters" DUH!

Ran across the following article in USA Today, May 13, 2008 - which means of course that I was staying in a hotel.

The Forum: Clinton exposes Obama's vulnerability: white voters

And my reaction? Well, duh....

I have to admit that I am surprised and inspired by how far Obama has gotten in the presidential race (and it does look like he has actually garnered the Democratic nomination. Simply amazing). I think it is a reflection of at least these two factors:

** A major change in the attitudes and basic life perspectives of young people (and by that, I - almost 50 years old - mean anyone under 35 or so). From talking to my kids, their friends, and others, I really do get a sense that they see things differently. That race and gender and just plain difference is not such a big deal to them. And that the way things have been done in the past have only led to rather awful situations that do not give them confidence in existing leadership.

** The depth of revulsion and disgust that so many Americans have for the Bush Administration. Bush, Cheney and others have lied through their teeth, manipulated us, I am certain broken many, many laws, caused the deaths of more Americans than were killed in the 9/11 attack, and are directly responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis. Clinton voted for the war and has not even found the basic decency to apologize. The Pentagon is sucking up so much of our money that our country is falling apart.

So why not, many people seem to be saying,
why not try something - and someone - new? [And while Clinton being a woman is new, Clinton the politician is nothing new.]

Having said all that, the US is still a very racist country. OF COURSE there are hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of Americans who cannot tolerate the thought of anyone but a European-American male being the President. Even if that anyone is so obviously smarter, more eloquent, more thoughtful, more compassionate, more honest than our current President.

So, OF COURSE, the fact that Obama is NOT WHITE is a key "vulnerability" for the man.

But what is less obvious and much more alarming is the fact that Clinton has decided that she should capitalize on this vulnerability and play the race card as she (and her husband) has. We have come to expect Willie Horton attacks from the Republicans. But Clinton has run a campaign that has me (and, it seems, many others) questioning her ethics and judgement.

I suppose that if through some miracle or disaster Clinton did get nomination, I would still vote for her - though it is getting harder and harder to acknowledge that.

What I do find odd is that so many Clinton supporters vociferously claim that if (when) Obama gets the nomination they will not vote for him.

Why wouldn't they vote for him? As far as I can tell his most frequent response to Clinton's attacks is to criticize them as "political silliness." Obama has generally taken the "high road" and maintained a sense of personal dignity. Why would a Clinton supporter punish him for their own candidate's lousy performance?

Ah well....hopefully soon this will be past. Obama will be the Democractic nominee. Clinton will vow her support. He will then pick a white male with a solid national security background. And then he will engage in electoral battle with a man who, while a very pleasant and likeable guy (he actually enjoys visiting Jon Stewart on the Daily Show - can you imagine Bush doing that?) also promotes truly awful policies, worse than Bush in some ways.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Lost (or perhaps gained) in translation

I ran across a set of dish drain covers in a Puerto Rico supermarket, and found the following text on the back of the package:

Chenyang Commodity World Using



I especially like "DAMPPROOF" and "CREDIBLE QUALITY."

Monday, April 07, 2008

Favorite photos....

I have created a Flickr Set containing some of my favorite photos. I hope you enjoy them!

Friday, April 04, 2008

Battery Water

We recently installed a solar power system on a house we own in a very sunny clime. Along with the 12 180W solar panels, we have 16 batteries to store all that electricity from the sun. And those batteries need to be topped off with water - water for batteries: battery water.

Electricity: all by itself it is totally amazing and must rank as one of the great modernizing inventions of humankind, but getting it from the sun? Even more incredible, wonderful, sensible, liberating. And yet....we are still living in a world of conflict and poverty that in many owes itself to our oil/carbon-driven economies. There is so much talk about dependency on oil, so many tax dollars spent to subsidize ethanol - which takes more energy to create then it produces! and is disrupting corn-based food economies....and yet a.

All the technology exists so that at least in sunny environments, governments could lead a major conversion to solar power.

It's all very frustrating. But that's not what I meant to write about in this blog. I want to talk about "battery water" - a very ridiculous scam.

Batteries like the ones we use in our solar power system, and also those used on motorcycles, etc., need to be "topped up" on a regular basis with water. Water that goes in a battery, hence, battery water. Our batteries were getting dry, so we went to a Pep Boys auto store and found a gallon of battery water for $3.99. I looked at the label. It said that the water does not contain any minerals and also that it is "not for human consumption." Wow. Water that people can't or should not drink. And it doesn't contain minerals.

Well, I kind of knew about some other water that doesn't contain any minerals - distilled water. So I went online and looked up information about water that is supposed to go into a battery. And it turns out that this special "battery water" is, indeed, distilled water!

So we went to Walgreen's, where they sold us distilled water for the price of $.99 per gallon. One quarter the price of battery water.

And that is the point of this blog: if you need to put water in your batteries, DO NOT BUY "BATTERY WATER." It is a rip-off and nothing more than a repackaging of distilled water.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

British Airways - over the top with plastic waste

I recently flew on a British Airways flight from Munich to Heathrow and was left speechless by its profligate use of plastic in its meals...

I just returned from a week in Madrid and Munich, delivering trainings for Oracle. Usually such trips barely count as work. I get upgrades because I fly so much and being paid to offer up my "wisdom" to other developers - well, that is a privilege, really. This time, though, it felt distinctly like work, because I lost my voice (caught some sort of illness, then presented for four hours at the Ottawa User Group) just before I flew to Madrid, and over the rest of the week, got sicker and sicker. I am flying back home. First, I took a British Airways flight from Munich to Heathrow, and now an American Airlines 777 back to Chicago.

On the BA flight, I opened up their magazine and read an article titled:

British Airways shows its green initiative

And the opening paragraph informed us: "British Airways has taken fresh steps to intensify its work in limiting climate change. The airline has unveiled a new carbon offset scheme..." and then it went on to describe several other initiatives.

Well, that sounded interesting (except that I think those carbon offset programs are bogus and mostly used to ease consciences, rather than have any real positive or offsetting effect). And then the flight attendants delivered our meals.

Now, I should explain that airlines in Europe do things very differently from the US these days. This flight (Munich to Heathrow) was only 1.5 hours long. In the US, on a flight that short and even on many longer flights, you will be lucky to get a small bag of nuts or pretzels. You might even have to pay for water.

In Europe, I have been on flights that were under an hour in length and stil lthe flight attendants very aggressively got a meal and drink (including alcohol if you so desire) into our hands. How do they stay in business?

So we got a meal on our flight -- and I was stunned at the contrast between that article ("green initiative") and the meal package. Here's what I got:

A sandwich, small candy bar, little container of milk for coffee or tea. The sandwich was inside a plastic wrap, and that along with everything else was in its own plastic wrap. Lots of plastic. But this was nothing new to me. Seems like the normal BA meal form.

Underneath the sandwich, I found another plastic bag, which usually contains sugar, a stirring stick and napkin. But this bag contained something else.

That's right: another plastic bag that contained within it a plastic bag that we were to use to hold all of our trash when we were done eating our snack! I have never seen anything like this before.

Usually the flight attendants walk down the aisle, pick up our trash, and dump it into a big plastic trash bag.

Today, the BA flight attendants walked down the aisle, pick up our trash bags, and dump them into a bigger plastic trash bag.

So BA has deliberately chosen to add thousands and thousands more plastic bugs to our landfills and oceans. Why, British Airways, why would you do this? Please stop! Or if you are going to do this, then please stop publishing self-congratulatory articles on how green you are!

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Paper or Plastic? Neither!

For a long time now, I have eschewed plastic bags at retail stores, and instead (whenever possible) asked for paper. I figure that even if it certainly takes energy and trees to create the bags, at least they don't overwhelm landfills and kill wildlife after disposal. Plus, I used them a second time, either for kitchen trash or cat litter.

But over the last year, Veva and I have started being much more conscientious about bringing canvas bags with us when shopping so we can avoid having to use either paper or plastic.

The problem for me is that I would run out of bags for garbage. What's a tree-hugger to do?

Veva solved the problem. She found 100% biodegradable and compostable bags from BioBag.

The bags are made of Mater-Bi, made by Novamont SpA. Here is what BioBags says about their products:

"All of our products contain GMO free starch, biodegradable polymer and other renewable resources. No polyethylene is used in the production process. BioBag products meet ASTM D6400 specifications and California SB 1749 requirements. We will never compromise our earth or our standards."

Sounds good to me!

So....if you do not already live in a sane part of the world - that is, a part of the world where plastic bags are no longer given away free and in great, profligate quantity -- and you desperately want to avoid filling up our world with plastic, order a bunch of BioBags.

And then buy yourself a bunch of reusable, durable canvas bags to bring home your food and other products from stores.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Ruminations on the Eyeball Economy

Do you like advertising? When I am asked this question, I usually reflexively answer: "No! I hate advertising."

Yet to be honest, I often enjoy ads quite a bit. They can be incredibly creative, funny, surprising, emotional, and more.

Upon reflection, what that means, really, is that I appreciate the art in the ad.

So let's strip the art, creativity, imagination and so on from the ad. We are then left with an effort to convince us to buy something. OK, and now I will ask myself that same question again: "Do you like advertising (without the art)?"

And now I can answer most definitively: "No!"

I expect you would probably say the same thing, especially when you are forced to sit through a third or fourth repetition of the very same ad in order to get back to that really interesting movie. Don't you just hate that?

Ah, but isn't the art and creativity worth a touch of selling?

Well, it's worth lots more than that. In fact, I often think of advertising as a "pact with the devil." I accept advertisements (in newspapers, magazines, on television, as visual pollution along the highways, and so on) in order to get things for free or (theoretically, that is, according to advertising agencies) at a reduced cost.

If not for ads, we are told, we would have to pay for all the television shows we see.

If not for ads, newspapers would cost $10 an issue.

If not for ads,....well, you get the idea (and had it before you read this).

Why don't I like being urged to buy something? Because it seems to me that the selling part of advertising is fundamentally about coercion, manipulation, and shadings of the truth from omission to outright deception. It is about trumping objective, rational decision-making with irrational choices (more on irrationality below).

Impervious to ads?

I like to say (most emphatically) that advertising does not affect my buying decisions. And that may be true, relatively speaking (for example, I never - or hardly ever - click on a sponsored link on a Google search page. I watch almost no commercial television.). Yet it would be presumptuous of me at best to make the claim that messages beamed into my brain from almost every angle and experience in my urbanized, ad-saturated world have no effect whatsoever.

And even if the impact of ads is fairly minimal on me, it surely must be having the desired effect on hundreds of millions of other people. I may not have lots of positive things to say about the simultaneously brutal and liberating economic system called Capitalism, but it is clear that money is spent where and how it is able to generate more money. Advertising works, which means that people are convinced, compelled, directed, to buy things not according to rational decision-making but on the basis of heavily prejudiced information produced by those with a serious conflict of interest in the matter at hand.

"Oh, stop whining, Steven." I can hear the chorus now. "Just another bleeding heart liberal who hates the Market because it doesn't guarantee a free lunch for every lazy bum on a street corner."

Maybe (but only if that lunch is organic and vegetarian), but what I really want to talk about isn't advertising, it's the Eyeball Economy, whose existence and success is dependent entirely on advertising.

What's the Eyeball Economy?

The Eyeball Economy is that part of our economic system which derives it value from "eyeballs," from the numbers of people who visit, view, experience a particular piece of content. The valuation of companies in the Eyeball Economy is not based so much on the products or services they provide (often given away at no cost to the user) but on how many people stop by to visit (and, so the advertisers desire, "click through").

Prominent members of the Eyeball Economy include Google, eBay, Yahoo, YouTube, Flickr, MySpace, etc. These companies are the newest high-flyers, the get-rich-quick role models of our day,

Now, don't get me wrong. These companies perform valuable services. I use Google to find stuff. I use eBay to buy stuff. I use YouTube, wait. I don't use YouTube. I'm not one for sitting passively and watching. And I haven't yet gotten round to setting up my MySpace page, but when I do it is going to be very hip or very hop, or something. Obviously these companies fill a need. I am happy these websites and services exist. Heck, I'd even be willing to pay for those services. That's how valuable they are to me. Yet it seems that something has gone badly out of whack when you look at their stock value.

Consider Google. For the user, it provides a powerful search engine. For the advertiser, it provides enormous potential revenue via click-throughs. For Google, it makes a gazillion dollars from a gazillion-squared micro-transactions (it receives a tiny payment per click-through).

So everyone wins, correct? Well, it is very hard for me to see it that way. The money that is soaked up by Google and by advertising agencies is coming out of someone's pocket somewhere along the way. It's fine for economists to go on and on about how it is not a zero sum game, but it sure does seem that way to me. That is, to put it simply, you can't have rich people without poor people. And you can't have super-rich people without massive numbers of extremely poor people.

So Google is a great money maker – but what is its inherent value, really?

Google's market capitalization on February 25, 2008 is $152 billion. In contrast, Baxter International's market cap is $38 billion.

For all the complaints one might have about the pharmaceutical industry, it does at least on occasion produce real things of critical value in the world. When I make my monthly aphaeresis donation, which should save a few lives, my blood is extracted, separated, and re-inserted into my body by a machine produced by Baxter.

Even if I never see an ad about Baxter products, even if I never click through to the Baxter website from Google, even if I never directly purchase a Baxter product, those products are worthwhile, have value, and so does Baxter as a company. In other words, remove advertising, remove eyeballs, from the equation and Baxter is still Baxter.

Can we say the same thing about Google?

A vulnerable business model?

Suppose for just a moment that lots of people get really sick of advertising, of being pressured and manipulated to buy things. I know, I know, sounds crazy, but just stick with me for a bit. Suppose that all of a sudden and in a very public manner, we the Internet users of the world simply refuse to "click through." We ignore all sponsored links, pay absolutely no attention to ads on the right hand side, block banner ads and balloon ads and whatever other kinds of nifty "features" they will think of to get in our way, and so on.

Instead, we all join Consumer Reports. Then, whenever we are interested in buying things, we simply go to and get a dose of completely objective, unbiased, thorough information about the relevant products and services. And because so many more of us join Consumer Reports, it has vastly increased resources to research and evaluate products, and educate their membership about their findings. [In fact, is already one of the most successful subscription websites on the entire Internet!]

What, then, happens to Google? It ability to make money disappears virtually overnight. Companies stop paying for ads, because they aren't getting click-throughs. Instead, those companies concentrate on improving product quality and features so as to achieve better evaluations by Consumer Reports. And the bubble that is Google (a bubble that more accurately resembles a Zeppelin) bursts.

Nah, it won't burst. At least not right away, because Google will respond simply by ending the practice of offering free searches. Instead, we will have to pay small amount of money, say $.001, for each search. Well, I say: "Great!" Let's start paying for searches. We will search less and more selectively. We will consume less bandwidth, making it easier to extend the Internet to more and more people around the world (yes, bandwidth is getting scarce due to the increasing amount of video downloads, thank you, YouTube).

Google's valuation is irrational

Thus, the value of Google to investors and management and employees is based fundamentally on irrationality. Irrationality should be tolerated so long as it is kept private (fine examples of irrationality that should be kept to oneself, to my mind: religious faith and celebrity adoration), but when it is extended to a society as a whole (especially in a coercive manner), irrationality becomes a curse and a cancer.

One could argue that before the Internet, advertising played a crucial role in educating consumers about what was available. Sure, that education was biased in favor of those who could pay for the ads, but still, how else would we know that two-ply, contoured toilet paper existed and would help us oh so much?

And since advertising (aka, Madison Avenue) had established itself as a dominant force, and the manipulative powers of advertising had been proven over and over again, that same business model quickly was extended to the Internet, and then spread like a virus to websites, services and the perception of which of those had value.

Ironically, however, it is precisely the advent of the Internet, in fact, specifically because of websites like Google, that advertisements lose any sort of redeeming value from the standpoint of education and awareness building (except from the sellers' perspective). We don't need companies pushing their products at us. We can use the pull technology of Internet search to find out everything we need about those products. And once we have collected that information, we can make informed, rational decisions about what to buy and do.

And when we do that in increasing numbers, helped by resources like Consumer Reports, the Eyeball Economy becomes endangered, and giants of "industry" will fail.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Istanbul in One Day, Sort of

I am now flying back home to Chicago from snow to snow, actually. The morning I left Istanbul, it had started to snow....

Upon reflection, what that means, really, is that I appreciate the art in the ad.

I am now flying back home to Chicago, from snow to snow, actually. The morning I left Istanbul (Wed, Feb 13) it had started to snow. And Chicago, well, Chicago is having one of the snowiest and coldest winters in a long, long time. It is now 9 degrees Farenheit in Chicago. That's much colder than Istanbul. So I will not complain about how in my short visit to this old and bustling city of 20 million the weather was cold, wet and gray.

It just was.

I went to Istanbul to do a two day training sponsored by Oracle Corporation for 53 developers, including some hard-core members of my "fan club" (you know, the sort of programmer who takes his or her job very seriously, reads my books before going to sleep at night, that sort of thing. Hey, Husnu, get a life! :-) ). Everyone was very pleased with the turnout, and the facilities at Sun Plaza were fantastic. Many thanks to Issin and Gokhan of Oracle Turkey!

The reason the title of this blog entry is "Istanbul in One Day" is that while I was in the city for three full days, I only had Sunday to be a full-fledged tourist. I arrived Saturday night at the Sheraton in Maslak (business center 10 KM from the center of Istanbul). At 8 PM I heard a loud clanging sound outside my 14th floor window. I pull open the blinds and see that right next to the hotel is a big construction site for a new building, already towering above me. And yes they were working. I call reception and find out that they work till 11 PM each night. Including Saturdays and Sundays. Uh oh.

I really didn't want to pack up and move to a different room. Instead, I went online and found I paid $2.99 for a 68 minute MP3 file titled "by the sea". Wonderful, soothing sounds of the surf. Covered up the clanging and allowed me to easily and enjoyably drift off to sleep. I recommend it highly and you sure can't beat the price.

So I got to sleep, but imagine my dismay when I woke up at 8 AM on Sunday to pouring rain. Not a hint on sunlight. And none too warm, either. Ugh. Well, there was nothing for it, but to get out there and do what you do when you come to Istanbul for the first time:

1. Visit Hagi Sofia (actually spelled and pronounced Ayasofia in Istanbul itself), a very old and massive church with famous mosaics. I have to admit that I was a bit underwhelmed by Ayasofia. I think the problem was that it was a very dark day and the building does not have lots of electrical illumination. Plus it is not really all that well kept up (which I can understand, given its size). So it was dark, dank and cold inside, and I was expecting pristine, glowing, well-maintained structure. Check out my photos.

2. Visit Sultanahmet, otherwise known as the Blue Mosque, a very old and massive and beautiful mosque. This is the largest mosque in Istanbul, which is saying a lot, because Istanbul was full of mosques, many of them very big (Turkey is 95% Muslim, but its government and military have been resolutely secular for decades. The dominant party at the moment, however, is PPP, the Muslim party, and tensions are growing in the country). Check out my photos.

3. Descend into the Basilica Cistern, an underground water reserve built in the 6th century (the water was collected from the Belgrad forest 19KM from the city). Consists of 336 large marble columns (two of which have Medusa heads at their base for unknown reasons). Marvelous, mysterious, very soothing. Check out my photos.

4. Walk up to the Galata Tower: built in the 15th century (or maybe earlier?), it looks out over the city (though I must admit I did not climb up to the top of the tower). Check out my photos.

5. Stroll down Istiklal (Independence) Street to Taksim: this is "Main Street" Istanbul. Very crowded, very busy, cosmopolitan, full of cafes, restaurants, Starbucks, the occasional church or mosque, the oldest high school in the city, a car that had just been on fire and was covered with ash. You name it, I saw it - and here are the photos to prove it.

6. Visit a carpet store (more or less against my intention, if not against my will): ah, yes. Turkish carpets. I had no plans to visit a carpet store. For one thing, several years ago we bought two beautiful, fair trade carpets from Ten Thousand Villages, so we were all carpeted-out. Second of all, with plans to relocate to Puerto Rico in a few years, we are focusing on getting rid of belongings, lightening the load, not acquiring more stuff. But here's what happened: I had just left the Cistern and was circling back to take a picture by the entrance so I could record the date and basic facts of this water store, and this friendly guy struck up a conversation, assured me he was not a guide trying to pick up a fee, and then said: "I have a shop down the street; let me give you my card." OK. Well, turns out all his cards were in his shop, so in we went, and it was full of carpets. And his family had been in the business for seven generations. What a surprise! I immediately told him that I was not going to be buying any carpets. "No problem! Please, sit down, have some tea. Turkish hospitality." So I did that and soon his brother, more the carpet expert than the "pull in the guy off the street" guy, took over. He showed me a carpet and asked me what I thought.

At that point, I decided, well, they dragged me in here. I could either just leave or I could engage and perhaps have an interesting conversation. So once again I told him that I wasn't going to buy a carpet. He dismissed that. I then told him I was not very impressed with the carpet. It was an uninteresting repetition of a dull pattern. Have you heard of Christopher Alexander? I asked. Yes! he said excitedly. Of course!

Alexander is a very interesting guy. An architect by profession, he developed a powerful and deep critique of modern architecture, and in the process came up with a "pattern language" to describe how to create meaningful, high quality structures. His ideas on patterns were taken up by software architects (the so-called Gang of Four) who established a whole movement in software called Design Patterns. Alexander also collected and studied very old carpets to try to understand what them so remarkable and powerful and moving, compared to the sort of things that are for the most part done today. He published a book about it, which I bought and read (most of). It is a beautiful book and his theories about the carpet designs really struck home with me. the carpet fellow must have been very excited. They pull some American off the street and he actually knows something about our carpets! So he immediately gestured to his assistant to pull out certain carpets and...yes...there they were, the kinds of carpets that Alexander found so powerful (they generally feature a central "medallion" or shape that seems to have life to it, plus complex interlocking "centers"). So we talked about them, compared several, and he soon realized which of them was my favorite.

Throughout this whole time, I am reminding him: I am not going to buy a carpet.

Finally, he starts to talk about prices. "I am not going to get into bargaining with you. I am going to offer you a very good price for this carpet. $3800." I was impressed. Given what I spent in Chicago, that was not a lot of money for the quality and beauty of carpet he was showing me. I said so, but reminded him "I am not going to buy a carpet."

So he talked lots more, he asked me why I am not buying. I explained in full detail. He talked more and then because he said he had not yet sold a carpet that day and very much wanted to sell this carpet to me, who could greatly appreciate it, that he would sell it to me for $1700. Now, that was a good price. But no, I sadly shook my head....and a few minutes later he was down to $1200. I really felt torn. At this point, I was sure that he was more or less giving it away, that this was a very good price, that he really did not want me to walk out the door empty-handed. And I did like it a lot. But I stuck to my principles and eventually walked away. I bet he was quite upset. But hey - I didn't come in there on my own volition. I didn't insist on being served multiple cups of tea.

Like I said to him: "Bad luck, man! Your brother actually finds somebody who has studied carpets, who can appreciate what you are selling....but he just wasn't going to buy a carpet. No matter what."

And that is my Turkish carpet story. I do feel some regret. I could probably have sold it locally for more than that. But I really am trying to get into the habit of not buying more stuff. So...I visited Istanbul and came back with nothing but a refrigerator magnet. And photos.

Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of my trip was the evening I spent with fellow Oracle technologists, H. Tonguc Yilmaz. Tonguc, who had helped spread the word of my training and is well-known in the Turkish Oracle community, arranged an evening out to authentic places that local Turks visit, not the big (though remarkable) tourist spots. We had dinner at the Aga Restaurant, across the street from the Aga Mosque, right off Istiklal Street. It was Turkish "fast food". All the food is sitting in trays at the counter. You pick out what you want, they fill up your plate, you sit down and dig in. Delicious! Stuffed grape leaves, lamb (I don't usually eat it, but had to try it. They forced me. :-) ), all sorts of different stuff. Then we enjoyed a platter of various desserts, most honey-soaked and all quite wonderful.

From Aga, we walked down Istiklal, I bought my refrigerator magnet, and then we down a rather dark, almost empty side street (more like an alley) and stepped in through a non-descript doorway, went up an elevator and ended up in the Leb-i Derya bar, which offered a truly wonderful view over the city, from the Anatolia side (Asia) to the Eminou side (old city, palace, Ayasofia, etc. - Europe). After a drink and a soaking in of the view, they then took me to the Dolmabahçe Palace for a traditional cup of hot sahlep, right by the water.

That was a really nice evening. Thanks again, Tonguc, Husnu and Ozgur for taking the time out to help me enjoy a side of Istanbul I would otherwise never have seen.

Istanbul was probably the most security conscious place I have ever visited. Almost every building I entered (hotel, office building, historical site, mall), plus the metro, had metal detectors. No one enters the airport, much less gets on a plane without going through a metal detector. My friends felt that it was a bit much. The rationale for it is to protect against possible terror attacks by Kurdish groups, but so far as I know there haven't ever been any in these kinds of public places. So they felt that its purpose was more to keep people scared, on edge, and willing to accept a heavy military presence and role in society. Gee, sounds kind of familiar.

The metro was interesting. According to my friends, Istanbul had the second subway in the world, after the one installed in Paris. And it is still in operation! But it is very small. And besides that one, there is a new metro line build in the last ten years (which I took) but it is only 8 KM long and with six stops. Traffic is awful in Istanbul and there is a great need for public transport and an extensive subway network. But in a city as old as Istanbul, it is virtually impossible to dig anywhere and not run into architectural treasures that must be preserved.

On the flight from Istanbul to Heathrow, we flew right over the Alps. Beautiful, snow-covered mountains, photos here.

On the flight from Heathrow to Chicago, we of course flew over Greenland and then the northeastern corner of Canada, right near Ungava Bay, photos here.

Only 1500 miles to go!

See the rest of my Istanbul photos here.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Huckabee discloses he is unfit for U.S. presidency

"I did not major in math, but I majored in miracles, and I still believe in them," Huckabee said at a rally at the University of Maryland in College Park, according to this Reuters report.

So the way I see it, he could run for Pope. He could run for Chief Rabbi. He could run for all sorts of things, but as the presidency of the United States, he would be a total disaster. We don't need believers in miracles. We need believers in rational thinking, logic....math.

By the way, I think the way this race is going demonstrates a big difference regarding the "extremes" of the Democractic and Republican parties.

On the Republican side, Huckabee is strongly supported by the Christian evangelical, fundamentalist, extreme right element of the party. They continue to give him money and he continues to fight.

Why? Not because he can win, but because they want to pressure McCain to move further to the right and to pick a harsh right-wing VP running mate.

On the Democractic side, left-wingers are too easily content to simply jump on a Clinton or Obama bandwagon (mostly Obama) and hope for the best. The result will be that there will be little pressure to take up more progressive viewpoints (Clinton and Obama both mouthed concern about poverty as long as Edwards was in the race making an issue of it) and they will be more likely to pick a VP candidate to the right of them.

Wimpy, wimpy, wimpy. And a major strategic error.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Define "Accidental"

Read this yesterday online:

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Actor Heath Ledger died of an accidental overdose of six prescription drugs, with a combination of painkillers, tranquilizers and sleeping aids found in his system, officials said on Wednesday.

"We have concluded that the manner of death is accident, resulting from the abuse of prescription medications," the New York City Medical Examiner's Office said in a statement.

"Mr. Heath Ledger died as the result of acute intoxication by the combined effects of oxycodone, hydrocodone, diazepam, temazepam, alprazolam and doxylamine," the statement said.

This is really sad. Here's a guy who had just achieved enormous success in his chosen field, and yet he was apparently very unhappy. So unhappy, so disturbed, that it is very likely that he engaged in "doctor shopping" so that he could obtain prescriptions for that amazing and ultimately deadly array of drugs without anyone getting suspicious. Clearly, he abused these drugs and it killed him.

Why would he do this? Why do we hear so often about actors and actresses, often very popular ones, being so incredibly messed up?

I think that it must have something to do with the very nature of the celebrity culture, particularly as it applies to actors and actresses. They get an enormous amount of recognition and adulation, and often large sums of money.

But for what? For pretending to be someone other than themselves.

I am fortunate enough to be well regarded by many PL/SQL developers. Oracle Corporation, in fact, calls me a "celebrity" when they organize trainings with me. I find that very amusing. But, OK, I will accept that in my very small subculture of PL/SQL, I am a celebrity. And why is that? Precisely and only because people value what I say, do and believe.

Thus, any kudos and ego strokes I receive reinforce to me my basic sense of self esteem (well, my wife would say it bloats up my ego so that I can barely fit my head through the front door).

But the message that someone like Heath Ledger gets from the over-the-top adulation is:

"We love you for being able to pretend to be someone else. In fact, we have NO IDEA what you are really like and who you really are. And we don't really care. Party on, Heath!"

I can see that really twisting up a person's thinking, the way they see themselves. I can see it leading to excessive drug use and getting completely lost.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Rangitoto, New Zealand: Baby Land

New Zealand is a whole bunch of islands, formed from volcanic eruptions. And 30 minutes by ferry ride east of Auckland City is Rangitoto, the very newest of these islands. Its volcano erupted just 600 years ago, and almost all the vegetation on the island is less than 200 years old.

New Zealand is a whole bunch of islands, formed from volcanic eruptions. And 30 minutes by ferry ride east of Auckland City is Rangitoto, the very newest of these islands. Its volcano erupted just 600 years ago, and almost all the vegetation on the island is less than 200 years old.

I couldn't pass up the chance to walk on such new land, and hike up to the summit for a look around. So I took the first ferry out, 9:15 AM, along with a lot of other people. I noticed many of them slathering on the sun block and found myself worrying a bit: "Shouldn't I be doing the same thing?" Coming from Chicago in the winter, it's not as if my skin is tanned and ready to withstand the hot, bright New Zealand summer sun....well, I had sunglasses (really poor quality sunglasses in fact, that are too tight and give me a headache if I wear them for too long - silly me) and a Wallabies rugby cap, gifted to me by Vanessa of Quest while I was in Sydney. I figured I would be OK.

We arrived at the pier and disembarked. Rangitoto is not a tourist haven. There are no shops, no food or drinkable water available. Whatever you plan to consume, you bring with you. I had a decent size bottle of water and a bag of nuts and raisins. Now, while Rangitoto is not developed, it is also not empty. The shoreline is dotted with tiny little "Bach" houses. When I first saw references to the "Bach" community on websites, I thought to myself: "Weird. They can't even get their webpages spell-checked," certain that they meant to write "Beach". Nope. "Bach" is short for "bachelor" -- apparently several decades ago it was very common for single men to build these tiny little shacks near beautiful spots to crash while away for the weekend to enjoy the surf, etc. George, my eco-guide to Waitekere, pointed out some of the same in the Waitekere Ranges.

OK, off the boat and on to my hike. Of course, for those who were not ready willing or able to walk to the summit, you could hop on a trailer that was pulled by a tractor. Not for me! was a hard climb. At first relatively flat, walking along a bulldozed trail cut out of what is clearly new land - mostly just low brush, a few trees, and lots of black, volcanic rock. And lots of sun. I was very glad for my cap, but worried about my ears and neck. I kept turning the cap for maximum coverage against the position of the sun.

And then the ascent grew steeper. I was hiking in some new New Balance 857s, which are great running shoes but not great hiking shoes. Not enough support in the sole or in the uppers. I ended up with blisters on several toes, mostly from the downhill climb. But I managed to get to the summit in about 45 minutes -- the trail markers estimated 1 hour to climb and I was impressed. That is the amount of time someone in pretty good shape would climb the summit. For most out of shape Americans, it could be well more than that. And I was amazed to see (as I descended from the summit, and passed people who were way behind me) a whole bunch of people trying to climb wearing only flip-flops! Many of them made eye contact with me and others coming down with clear questions in their eyes and on their lips: "How much further?"

Well, the summit was excellent. Fantastic view all around, could see all the way back to Auckland City and the Sky Tower (from which insane, adrenalin junkies jump) and into the volcano's crater. I was a bit disappointed there - it was covered with vegetation like everything else. I was hoping for more of a volcanic/lunar kind of landscape. Ah well...I took the Crater Rim Walk and was about half-way around - and actually having climbed up off the trail for a better view into the crater, when I heard a boy yelling with increasing hysteria and tears: "Daddy? Daddy? DADDY!"

I hurried back down to the trail and found little Sam, perhaps 8 years old, alone on the trail and very upset. He was from some town in New Zealand that I could barely understand, something along the lines of "Wallabangadanga". His dad and other brother had gotten ahead of him, and his mom and younger brother were behind. Pretty clearly, he'd turned down the crater trail, while his dad and brother went on up to the summit. So I walked him around to the summit, trying to calm him down.

We get to the summit and he says "There's my dad!" but his Dad doesn't notice him and doesn't seem to even notice that Sam is not with him. Sam finally walks over to his dad and his brother. I kept my distance but listened. "Hey Sam, what's wrong? Did you fall down? Were you yelling back there? What? You got lost? Oh, well, you're here now." More tears and pathetic sounds from Sam. "Well, I won't lose you again," with a laugh and clap on the shoulder. His dad sounded like a real loser. Not only did he actually not notice that he had lost his middle son, but he basically made fun of the boy and expressed no real concern about what had happened. Sam could definitely have fallen off the side of hill, if he got really upset and panicked. Poor kid (in the blue shirt). So the message of the day was: Can't trust your dad, and total strangers seem to care more about you.

On the way down, I visited the lava caves. They were small and very dark, but I made my way through one of them, following some young boys with inadequate flashlights. I also went off the path and found another cave, which was really a big hole in the ground and from there, who knows? I did not climb down to look around. But I did come across some very interesting and beautiful and fragile growths on the bare volcanic rock. It looked very much like white coral, growing into the air.

Before heading back to the ferry, I stopped at the Kidney Fern Glen, which was a wonderfully peaceful and lush area, very different from the open volcanic areas.

All in all, a really nice way to spend the morning.

Here is the link to all my Rangitoto photos.

I am very sorry that I don't have the time to explain each one, but hopefully you can still enjoy them.