Monday, May 30, 2011

Whither Tuvalu?

The sea has been rising and will pretty clearly continue to rise.  This is not cause for immediate concern to citizens of Utah or Kyrgyzstan, but it's of great concern to citizens of countries such as Maldives (highest elevation 2.3 meters) or Kiribati (a few meters).  Or Tuvalu (4.5 meters).

Bear in mind that an island nation does not have to be completely inundated to become uninhabitable.  As the sea rises, the water inland becomes brackish and plants stop growing.  Storms become more destructive.  Even normal tides can become problematic and, leaving that aside, the amount of land, say, two meters above the sea will typically be dramatically less than the amount one meter above the sea.  It's a serious concern.

The Economist considers the worst case of an island nation becoming completely uninhabitable.  International law is unclear on this, there not being a lot of precedent, but the article speculates that, while the residents of the nation may be displaced and the nation itself no longer meet the criteria of having a clear territory or a permanent population, yet a nation might still remain a legal entity.  This matters because under this scenario the nation would still retain assets.

The most obvious asset is the territorial claim under the law of the sea (mainly territorial waters of 12 nautical miles and an economic zone of 200 nautical miles), but in the case of Tuvalu there is also the .tv domain (Maldives and Kiribati have their own domains of course, but haven't been able to exploit them economically the way Tuvalu has).  I've written before about how this didn't pan out to be quite the bonanza it was originally hoped to be, but according to Wikipedia it does bring in $4 million a year, or about $400 per year per capita under a contract expiring around 2012.

It's not clear what price the domain might fetch in the next round of negotiations, and in any case it would be small compensation for losing one's homeland, but amid all the sadness it's remarkable that perhaps some day the proceeds from a piece of virtual real estate will help sustain a virtual nation.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Sometimes they do listen

My correspondent who complained of bank's website putting "Complete Transfer" on a button that did not, in fact, complete the transfer is happy to report that the button now says "Continue Transfer".


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Kids, don't try this at home. Really. Don't.

Whenever I grab a spare moment from not being a lawyer and not being a security expert, I try to find time to not be a research chemist.  Fortunately for all of us, not only have more capable souls taken up that profession, but some of them have seen fit to blog about it.

Along with some interesting commentary on the pharma business and such, Derek Lowe's In the Pipeline includes two fine collections of hair-raising tales, under the headings of Things I Won't Work With and -- less extensively and not quite so entertainingly -- Things I'm Glad I Don't Do.  Some of it's a bit technical, but Lowe does a good job explaining things in a way someone with only basic knowledge of chemistry can understand.

And who am I to complain anyway?  I try to write in such a way that a non-compugeek reader can substitute "peanut butter" for terms like "sliding window protocol" and still get the gist, but I can't promise success in that regard.  At the very least, the non-chemist can substitute "exploding, highly-toxic and malodorous peanut butter" for most of the chemical terms and get the general drift.

Which, one must admit, does give the chemist a bit of a leg up.  I doubt I'll ever get to grace a post here with turns of phrase like
  • ... the resulting compounds range from the merely explosive ... to the very explosive indeed
  • Fragrance expert Luca Turin has described isonitriles as "the Godzilla of scent", and that's accurate, if you also try to imagine Godzilla's gym socks.
  • ... water ice (explosion, natch), chlorine ("violent explosion", so he added it more slowly the second time), red phosphorus (not good) ...
  • A colleague of mine made some in graduate school, and came down the hall to us looking rather pale.
  • It reeks to a degree that makes people suspect evil supernatural forces.
  • ... it’ll start roaring reactions with things like bricks and asbestos tile.
  • It is, of course, extremely toxic, but that's the least of the problem.
  • Read the paper and be glad that this wasn’t your PhD project.
On the other hand, none other than Gordon Moore (of Moore's law fame) got his start in the sciences blowing things up back in the days when a child's chemistry set had Real Chemicals in it.  In their own way, wild-eyed-crazy chemistry experiments are just as much a part of the web's DNA as cryptographically secure pseudo-random number generators peanut butter.

(When I was typing the first sentence, I missed the 'e' in "being."  Blogger's spell checker flagged it.  Yep.)

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Really? I never mentioned Snopes?

Well that obviously needs fixed.

On the off chance that you haven't heard of it,, more formally the Urban Legends Reference Pages, is the first place to go whenever someone forwards you a forward of a forward of ... a forward of an email containing some compelling factoid or tale.

All things considered, the signal/noise ratio of the web is surprisingly high.  Some sites, like Wikipedia, improve that ratio by (in aggregate) adding useful information.  Snopes does this as well, but also helps filter out the noise.  Given that it's a two-person operation (Barbara and David Mikkelson, who met during the days of alt.folklore.urban), one could make a strong case that Snopes accounts for more signal/noise improvement per person than any other site, if "signal/noise improvement per person" weren't such a geekily silly measure I'm not sure even I can use it with a straight face.

Crucially, Snopes does not set out specifically to debunk legends, though it may seem that way since only a small minority end up confirmed as true.  Rather, it sets out simply to document the known facts, track down how the various legends and rumors have circulated and if possible where they may have started, calling police departments and local officials to actually ask if something happened, and generally doing the journalistic legwork that too often gets bypassed in pursuit of a good story.

The Mikkelsons manage to do all this in evenhanded good faith and with a well-pitched sense of humor. Think of it as MythBusters for the web, albeit without Jamie's epic mustache.

Postscript: It occurs to me that studying the proliferation of urban legends ought to be a potent vaccine against taking the notion of "the wisdom of crowds" too far.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

What's the Garden City Telegram saying today?

Ran across this while browsing through the news: keeps images and readable PDFs of the front pages of hundreds of newspapers from dates it considers historically significant.  For copyright reasons, only selected front pages are available, but when they are the selection is impressive.

Navigation leaves a bit to be desired. Links from a particular front page to next and previous from the same paper would be nice, for example.  Nonetheless, it's a cool idea.

"When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean"

Another one in over the transom:
I have accounts at two different banks.  It's usually not a problem, but sometimes I need to transfer money from bank A to bank B.  I was happy to find out that bank B can do free transfers from other banks, after you've set things up.  It takes three days or so to clear, but that's generally no big deal.
All you have to do, once it's set up, is go on their web site and select "Transfer from outside the bank".  You select an account that you've already set up (bank A in my case).  You fill in the amount.  You select how you want the transfer done.  Actually there's just one choice: three-day free transfer.  At the bottom there's a button labeled "Complete Transfer"
So you click that button.  Another page comes up confirming the details you've just put in.  Great.  You're done.
Not so fast.
Three days later, there's no money transferred.  Contact customer service.  No, we don't see any record of it yet.  Please contact the bank where you initiated the transfer.
You're the bank where I initiated the transfer.
Sorry, don't see any sign of it.
Then you go back and try again.  You fill in the form.  You click on "Complete Transfer".  You see the same page with the details you just put in ... 
... and you think to scroll down to the bottom, which is cut off by your browser window.  At the bottom is a button that says "Send Transfer".
Didn't I just complete the transfer?  Guess not.  Click "Send Transfer".  The window goes gray and a spinny thing spins for a while.  Then you get a different window and a confirmation number.  Three days later the money is there.
Would it have killed anyone to have labelled the first button "Continue" instead of "Complete Transfer"?

[There's a happy ending, as announced in this post: The bank changed the text.  Yay!]