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January 30, 2014
Phil Foglio, Girl Genius, and me
Posted by Patrick at 09:17 AM * 229 comments

Phil Foglio has decided (here, here, and here) that I’m the author of his misfortunes with Tor Books, and that the appropriate thing to do is to urge all his fans to send me angry emails, tweets, and IMs about it.

To address one issue right away: Tor is not going to prevent further Girl Genius volumes from appearing over the next five years. Nothing like that is going to happen.

January 19, 2014
Entomosemantics, or, how to talk about bugs
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 10:45 AM * 156 comments

One of the skills they pay me the big bucks medium-sized Euro for at work is assessing the risks of changes going into production. To do it, I’ve become pretty good at evaluating the system that is being changed.

I could snow you with talk of checklists, metrics, and charts, but really, my most valuable analytical tools are my pattern-matching wetware and my experience. With those two things, I can usually describe the current state of the system and estimate its chances of going horribly wrong in the near future, just based on gut feel.

Below are my private terms for the various states of computer system health. I use different ones in official reporting. Usually.

  • clean: The system runs smoothly, with no visible bugs. I read the logs to calm down after stressful meetings.
  • stable: There are the occasional interface bugs, but the thing runs reliably. It feels like a melon you tap in the supermarket and decide to buy.
  • scruffy: Most users hit some kind of bug or another, but they can make it work most of the time. Regular users have workarounds the way commuters have rat-runs that avoid traffic blackspots.
  • buggy: This is when users begin to see the bugs they encounter as a pattern rather than individual occurrences. They start to wonder if the pattern of bugs indicates a deeper unreliabilty. They’re right to.
  • brittle: Bugs aside, it pretty much works…right up to the point where it shatters into little tiny pieces.
  • fragile: It falls over a lot. Ops can pretty much always get it back up again in a reasonable time. We spend a lot of time apologizing.
  • fucked: It’s broken. Again. Fortunately, we have backups, and we’re fairly sure they’ll work.
  • comprehensively fucked: The backups didn’t work. Shark time.

Entropy tells us that, barring intervention, systems tend to move down this sequence. But it’s not a linear progression. For instance, brittle and fragile, are parallel routes to fuckedness. They’re basically two different failure modes: the Big Bad Bang and Death by a Thousand Cuts.

The applicability of these categories to other matters is left as an exercise for the reader.

January 18, 2014
What happens to the baby when the bathwater runs out?
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 09:03 AM * 150 comments

While the Polar Vortex brought Martian temperatures to Canada, another, slower disaster has been unfolding in my home state of California: drought.

It’s true that drought is almost the default condition in California. We’ve had too many people for the water for decades. I grew up with bricks in toilet tanks, “if it’s yellow, let it mellow”, grey-water gardening, and to save [water drop] bumper stickers.

But this is different. As of today, 62% of California is in a state of “severe drought” according to the US Drought Monitor. The California Department of Water Resources reports that the snowpack is about 17% of the average for this time of year. Since the state drinks, washes in, and farms with snowmelt through the dry season, this is a disaster, locked and loaded, ready to fire*. No one knows what will be coming out of their faucets this summer.

(Thinking of West Virginia? Hold that thought.)

In response, Governor Jerry Brown has declared a State of Emergency:

In the State of Emergency declaration, Governor Brown directed state officials to assist farmers and communities that are economically impacted by dry conditions and to ensure the state can respond if Californians face drinking water shortages. The Governor also directed state agencies to use less water and hire more firefighters and initiated a greatly expanded water conservation public awareness campaign (details at saveourh2o.org).

In addition, the proclamation gives state water officials more flexibility to manage supply throughout California under drought conditions.

Did you catch that last bit? Environmental journalist (and long-time web crony of Making Light) Chris Clarke certainly did. And as he reports, it means exactly what it sounds like:

Buried in the language of the declaration, unmentioned at the press event which focused on voluntary conservation programs, is a clause exempting the state’s responses from having to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the backbone of the state’s environmental protection law.

Because ignoring the environmental impacts of our actions has worked out so well thus far, right?

Now, before anyone starts hrrumphing, I’m a test manager. I know that when there’s a production emergency, you skip steps and break rules. But I also know that that’s how you take bad decisions, make mistakes, and create long-running problems. It takes fine judgment to balance the immediate need against long-term consequences. It also requires someone who will not use that immediate need to damage the infrastructure of decision-making, because it worked during the emergency, so let’s keep doing it is both tempting and perilous.

Now, there’s an argument to be made about CEQA reform; like any law, it’s acquired encrustations and redundancies. And maybe its provisions would slow drought relief efforts too much, and emergency managers should focus on its spirit rather than its letter. But Jerry Brown is on the record saying that he has “never seen a CEQA exemption [he] didn’t like.” That makes me…tense about the decisions he’ll make under the parasol† of the State of Emergency.

This bears watching. It could be a disaster that outlasts the drought.


* And fire it will. Indeed, already has, though the usual fire season’s not for months yet. Brace for worse news to come. The state’s going to burn this summer.
† In these circumstances, I can’t call it an umbrella.

January 16, 2014
“This really was an extraordinary thing.”
Posted by Patrick at 04:10 PM *

Bruce Schneier, “Today I Briefed Congress on the NSA”:

This morning I spent an hour in a closed room with six Members of Congress: Rep. Logfren, Rep. Sensenbrenner, Rep. Scott, Rep. Goodlate, Rep Thompson, and Rep. Amash. No staffers, no public: just them. Lofgren asked me to brief her and a few Representatives on the NSA. She said that the NSA wasn’t forthcoming about their activities, and they wanted me—as someone with access to the Snowden documents—to explain to them what the NSA was doing. Of course I’m not going to give details on the meeting, except to say that it was candid and interesting. And that it’s extremely freaky that Congress has such a difficult time getting information out of the NSA that they have to ask me. I really want oversight to work better in this country.

January 13, 2014
Our media elite, urging us to die politely
Posted by Patrick at 12:43 AM *

NYTimes honcho Bill Keller and NYTimes honcho spouse Emma Keller.

What the fuck is wrong with these people. No, wait. Nothing is wrong with them. They want us little people to “accept an inevitable fate with grace and courage”. As elites always do. Works out fine for them.

January 12, 2014
S is for Sherlock. It’s also for **Spoilers**.
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 06:03 PM * 52 comments

I have to say that The Moon is a Harsh Mistress makes much more sense after the carbonite freezer failed and they uploaded Mycroft’s last consciousness into a computer. And it’s interesting how the Doctor’s Wife turned up, but Matt Smith is going to want her back in her blue box form, so Lestrade should really turn his attentions elsewhere.

Hope the squid was CGI. That’s all I’m sayin’.

Given that the Beeb is running such a staggered schedule of the show, let’s put any discussions of the series here in a separate thread. Anyone not wanting spoilers for all three episodes…avoid, yeah?

January 07, 2014
Open thread 192
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 05:14 PM *

So my daughter had a visit with a district nurse this week. It’s something all Dutch kids in her grade have: a chance to make sure health problems are being caught early, and that all kids have some basic information about nutrition, health, puberty, drugs, alcohol, and sex before adolescence kicks in.

They gave her a pamphlet labeled, “What you should know about puberty as a girl”. It has pages titled:

  • Changes: what is happening to your body?
  • I’m bleeding! (with very cute little winged menstrual pads)
  • I feel so strange (mood swings)
  • Butterflies in your tummy (romantic attraction)
  • In love with a girl?
  • Do you know what you want? (consent)
  • Be smart about media (with a great paragraph about the difference between sex in fiction/movies and real sex)
  • You need to know this beforehand (contraception)

I am floored by this book. Let me translate the page about being gay:

In love with a girl?

Boy or girl?

Not all girls like boys. They can just as easily like girls. It can also happen that they sometimes like a boy and sometimes a girl.

Homo or bi

Girls who like girls are called lesbisch‡. Boys who like boys are called homo. It can also happen that sometimes you like a boy and sometimes a girl. That’s called biseksueel.

Sophie (11): My neighbors* are gay. They have a daughter. Nice, huh?

Laura (10): My mother says that it doesn’t matter if you fall in love with a girl or a boy. Only if you’re happy.

Am I lesbian?

Most kids figure out during puberty if they’re attracted to girls or boys. Some kids know very young if they’re attracted to girls, others not. So it’s just fine if you’re not clear on that yet. Take the time to figure it out! Are you uncertain whether you’re lesbian? That’s perfectly natural. Often, you’ll know after puberty what you are exactly. In any case, try to enjoy it if you fall in love, whether it’s with a girl or a boy.

Nothing wrong with it

Homosexuality is just as normal as heterosexuality. It’s just that there are many fewer gay people than straight ones. Some people may react† if you say that you’re lesbian. Maybe you’re afraid that others will bully you about it or not accept you? Take the time to understand your feelings, and choose a time to tell others when you’re ready. Remember that there’s nothing wrong with liking girls.

‡ all these terms are adjectives
* buurmannen, a word that specifically means “male neighbors” rather than the gender-neutral buren
† alas, I gather from my ground-level reports that this is not quite as rare a thing as the pamphlet says

Continued from Open thread 191. Continued in Open thread 193.

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