A Return to College – Adventures of an Adult Part 1

A list of demands from my community college Bio 100 professor in her welcome letter:

A. Tell me about yourself and why you are taking this class.
B. Is this your first online course (anywhere/or with cc)?
C. Have you taken BIO 100 before at cc? If so, how many times? D. Answer the following “Welcome Letter” questions:

  1. Where can you find the official assignment due dates for this class?
  2. When are assignments due each week in this class?
  3. What is the late policy for assignments?
  4. What is the late policy for exams?
  5. What is the policy regarding multiple submissions?
  6. What is self-plagiarism and what are the consequences for plagiarism?
  7. What is Wikipedia and what is the policy regarding using this and other open forum websites (e.g. Answers.com) as a source?
  8. What is the average needed on the exams to pass class?
  9. When is the last day to drop the class without having to take a grade?
  10. What happens if you do not complete the online syllabus acknowledgment and check in assignment by the due date?
  11. What is the policy regarding accessing assignments that are timed and password protected?
  12. What specific type of computer, web browser and word processing software are required for this course?
  13. What is the minimum amount of time (i.e. hours/week) you can plan to devote to course and lab work for this class?
  14. What is the attendance policy for this class?
  15. What is the policy for self-accelerating in this class?
  16. Type this statement as your acceptance of these policies: “I have read, understand and accept the policies for the class outlined in both the Welcome Letter and Syllabus”

My responses:

a. I’m a working adult returning to college to ultimately earn a degree in industrial and organizational psychology. Honestly I’m taking BIO 100 as a requirement of the AA degree.
b. Yes, this is my first online course
c. No, I haven’t taken BIO 100 at cc or at any other college
d1. The “Gradebook” section includes the due dates of each assignment.
d2. Wednesdays and Saturdays of each week
d3. 1 day late = 50% loss of credit, 2 days late = 75% loss of credit, after that, just don’t even try. Bad times.
d4. 10% deducted from the final score up to four days late – 100% deducted thereafter. Thereafter is a fabulous word.
d5. Multiple submissions are considered cheating and constitute a tragic flaw in the student’s moral character.
d6. Self-plagiarism is generally regarded as re-using work from previous classes. Any Plagiarism, self or not, will result in no credit, departmental penalties, and a crushing sense of guilt, worthlessness and self-doubt founded in a deep-seated belief in fundamental, unredeemable character flaws.
d7. Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia with many problems, not least of which is the stubborn refusal of primary sources as reliable providers of authoritative information. Almost every college of any repute considers Wikipedia an untrustworthy resource, and distrusts lazy, casual web searches as sources of undergraduate referential material. Any use of these online resources will be given zero credit. Admonished and acknowledged.
d8. 60%, irrespective of overall class average. Irrespective is another fabulous word.
d9. 02/09/2014
d10. You will be dropped from the course. Mercilessly and without remorse. Kneel before Zod!
d11. Can only be opened one time, don’t click until you’re ready. For reals. srsly.
d12. PC, Windows, Explorer, MS word.
d13. 24 hours/week
d14. Pursuant to Attendance policy – When a student fails to participate for more than 7 days in an 8 week class, they will not be allowed to continue.
d15. Any student found self-accelerating without department approval will lose credit on more or less everything.
d16. “I have read, understand and accept the policies for the class outlined in both the welcome letter and Syllabus.” “This is unnecessarily infantilizing and demeaning.”


Apple’s ebook conspiracy

Apple has been found guilty of leading a conspiracy to raise ebook pricing.

When the DOJ first started charging Apple and the five major publishers with collusion to raise e-book prices, the initial evidence did not look good for Apple. As an avid purchaser of ebooks, I was already highly annoyed with the price increases imposed on Amazon by book publishers, but I was willing to withhold judgement about collusion until the case played out.

Many of the prominent Apple bloggers seem to believe that the DOJ is unjustly pursuing Apple in this case, and instead should have been investigating Amazon for anti-competitive behavior or monopoly abuse of power. This has genuinely confused me. It seems that many folks don’t understand that consumer protection laws are meant to protect consumers not simply to mindlessly preserve or create competition.

While Apple plans to appeal today’s ruling, they are almost certainly going to lose there as well. Why? Because their actions demonstrably hurt consumers. Apple defends itself by saying it was only acting to create consumer choice, which must certainly be a good thing. In reality, Apple was manipulating the whole ebook market, which it knew it could not compete profitably in, in its own favor at the expense of customers.

No matter what your intent, colluding to fix prices between competitors is illegal. It has exactly the opposite effect of Apple’s stated intent. It removes customer choice, or more to the point, makes every possible choice exactly the same. Apple knew this. Given the commodity nature of ebooks, pricing is really the only meaningful “choice” a consumer has.

But the publishers had a more malicious goal in this collusion, which Apple was happy to go along with. They wanted to discourage the adoption of e-books in favor of their printed books and existing brick and mortar distribution system. They planned to accomplish this through raising prices on e-books to prohibitively high amounts.

So not only was the purpose of Apple’s collusion with the publishers meant to effectively reduce consumer choice, it was to discourage participation in the ebook market as a whole. That would be of little consequence to Apple, but would have huge ramifications to Amazon – and more importantly huge ramifications to buyers of books. This was an incredibly consumer hostile move on the part of Apple and the big five, and the DOJ was right to bring the case.

Amazon for all intents and purposes created the ebook market. It did all the heavy lifting of getting publishers to convert their books, and helping customers get accustomed to reading books on digital devices. Make no mistake, there would be no mainstream ebook market today without Amazon. Amazon lost a boatload of money and sunk a lot of time and resources making the ebook market legitimate – of course they are the dominant player in the market. Everyone else has been late to the party, and nowhere near as dedicated to making it work. Apple, bringing no new value to the ebook market, decided it wanted to play, but couldn’t do it profitably without higher prices and it was going to get them, Amazon and consumers be damned.

Now, in many cases, Amazon sells e-books for less than its cost. It makes up those costs in a variety of ways, but by and large they simply don’t care about the profitability of ebooks as much as Apple does. How could Apple possibly compete with them?

Well how about this? How about adding value? Apple, instead of colluding to fix prices could have been negotiating with the publishers to provide a better product. While ebooks may be mainstream now, they still leave a LOT to be desired. Apple could have offered insanely better typography, better quality photos, better search and indexing, better interactivity, hell, even just better editing and proofreading. They could have easily commanded the $13 and $15 price points if they could have convinced the publishers to give a damn about the quality of ebooks. Instead, Apple played along in the publishers scheme of making ebooks less attractive.

This is precisely the reason I refuse to buy any books from Apple. But that’s not the only reason I choose to buy books from Amazon. There is another option: pirate the books. I buy from Amazon instead of pirating, because I want to support ebooks and see the market grow. I know that’s what Amazon wants as well. The publishers want to protect a legacy business model, and Apple wants to control the online book market the same way it does the online music market.


Jaron Lanier’s Flight of Fancy

Jaron Lanier, a pioneer of virtual reality, and all around techno visionary was once someone I considered worth listening to. He recently published a new book called “Who Owns the Future?” and granted Salon an interview to discuss his views on how technology is destroying the middle class.

I have not read the book, and based on the article, have no intention to. Honestly I think Jaron is a straight up genius, and it very well could be that my simple brain can’t grok the points he’s trying to make, but his arguments and conclusions from the article are so far-fetched as to be moronic. I’m genuinely confused by how a guy as smart as Jaron can get things so obviously wrong.

I had lots of objections to his points but one in particular stood out to me – The comparison of Kodak to Instagram. In the prelude to his book he writes:

“At the height of its power, the photography company Kodak employed more than 140,000 people and was worth $28 billion. They even invented the first digital camera. But today Kodak is bankrupt, and the new face of digital photography has become Instagram. When Instagram was sold to Facebook for a billion dollars in 2012, it employed only 13 people. Where did all those jobs disappear? And what happened to the wealth that all those middle-class jobs created?”

This comparison is wrong headed in so many ways it’s difficult to know where to start. Kodak made cameras, and film, and printers, and chemicals, etc. etc. They were, and are still, a manufacturer. Instagram is a social network for sharing photos. Kodak was never the “face” of digital photography, merely a producer of digital cameras. Instagram in no way replaced or displaced Kodak.

The obvious answer to the question of where those jobs and wealth went is contained in a trivial examination of Instagram. Why does Instagram even exist? Camera phones. Camera phones, along with a bunch of other factors killed Kodak. Not Instagram. And lots and lots of people work to make those phones.

He continues in the interview:

Right. Well, I think what’s been happening is a shift from the formal to the informal economy for most people. So that’s to say if you use Instagram to show pictures to your friends and relatives, or whatever service it is, there are a couple of things that are still the same as they were in the times of Kodak. One is that the number of people who are contributing to the system to make it viable is probably the same. Instagram wouldn’t work if there weren’t many millions of people using it. And furthermore, many people kind of have to use social networks for them to be functional besides being valuable. People have to, there’s a constant tending that’s done on a volunteer basis so that people can find each other and whatnot.

So there’s still a lot of human effort, but the difference is that whereas before when people made contributions to the system that they used, they received formal benefits, which means not only salary but pensions and certain kinds of social safety nets. Now, instead, they receive benefits on an informal basis. And what an informal economy is like is the economy in a developing country slum. It’s reputation, it’s barter, it’s that kind of stuff.

Again… what? Comparing the contributions that workers make in manufacturing cameras, to the contributions of people sharing photos on Instagram defies any sense of reason.

If you’re going to compare the past to today in terms of technology and photography, at least attempt to compare similar things. If you want a counterpoint to the contributions of people posting on instagram, the closest possible comparison in pre-digital times is showing slides of your vacation to your friends when they come over for drinks. Or having pictures of your kids in your wallet that you show your buddies at work…. you know, sharing. How much money did people make off of that before technology ruined everything? Oh, right.

If you want to argue about the destruction of the middle class, there’s certainly an argument to be made, but it’s about the movement of manufacturing away from the US to cheaper labor markets, the steady erosion of labor laws, and tax law that repressively transfers wealth to the already rich. The care and feeding of a healthy middle class is not an enigma politically speaking. The real danger to the middle class is the constant pressure of corruption on a political system that’s ill equipped to fight it.

Okay, all that being said, I just have one more dig on Jaron:

You see that with music. You would think in the information age it would be the easiest thing to know what you’re listening to. That you could look up instantly the music upon hearing it so you know what you’re listening to, but in truth it’s hard to get to those services.

I was in a cafe this morning where I heard some stuff I was interested in, and nobody could figure out. It was Spotify or one of these … so they knew what stream they were getting, but they didn’t know what music it was. Then it changed to other music, and they didn’t know what that was. And I tried to use one of the services that determines what music you’re listening to, but it was a noisy place and that didn’t work. So what’s supposed to be an open information system serves to obscure the source of the musician. It serves as a closed information system. It actually loses the information.

I’m sort of at a loss for words here. What does Jaron want? Had he been listening to the music on his own device, it would have displayed the artist right on his screen. Had the cafe staff cared enough, they easily could have just checked the computer or device playing the music, it does keep a record of tracks played. They just obviously didn’t care about it as much as Jaron. So because Jaron can’t make Shazam work properly, somehow Spotify is serving as a closed information system? As opposed to what? Live performances?

I’ll leave it there, but the whole article is just full of weird tortured reasoning. What happened to Jaron Lanier?


Great meat, super cheap: sous-vide in a cooler

As a man in his mid-30′s I have long heard the siren call of scorched cow flesh. Along with the Big Swede, I am compelled by my Y chromosome to always be looking for new and better ways to apply fire to protein.

So when I saw a recent article that got all “sciency” with some of my preferred methods. My jimmies got mightily rustled.

Personally I was only guilty of myths 1 and 4. But given how important it is to “gently and evenly” heat your steak, I immediately thought of sous-vide. For those of you who are not obsessed with finding the one true way of cooking meat may not have heard of this interesting culinary development. It involves sealing meat in an air-tight bag – preferably vacuum sealed, and immersing it in water that has been heated to the desired end temperature of the meat – in the case of a medium rare steak – around 130° F (this is a little warm, but I like to play it safe).

This has many desirable effects which I’d recommend you check out in the wikipedia link above. For my purposes, I’m super pleased by 2 main things.

  1. It prevents the escape of water and fat from the meat in the heating process, which preserves flavor.
  2. It prevents overcooking of the meat – this is especially important when cooking multiple steaks of different sizes at the same time. You can leave the meat in the cooker for hours and it won’t overcook. This is good.

So why isn’t everyone doing this? It’s a very low pressure, easy way of cooking. We should all be on this bandwagon! Well, the big reason is that home versions of the machines typically used for sous-vide cooking cost anywhere from $300 to $500. That’s a lot of money for a fancy crockpot.

So when I saw a link on seriouseats.com explaining how to do sous-vide on the cheap using a beer cooler, I had to give it a shot.

On attempt #1, I used a zip-lock bag as described on the link above, and decided to finish the ribeye with a sear on my grill. Ultimately I didn’t get the grill hot enough beforehand because I didn’t want to overcook, and ended up with a poor finish on a very tasty piece of meat.

So I rededicated myself for attempt #2. Kelli has a foodsaver, so I seasoned and vacuum sealed Ribeye #2.

Sous-vide part deux - the revenge

Into the cooler for 45 minutes at 130°. Monitored by the awesome if sometimes infuriating Oregon Scientific AW131

Here we go

Once it came out of the cooler, I wasn’t going to screw around this time. Cast iron pan, hot as a mofo.

Cast iron pan!

I have to say, it was pretty superb. This is now definitely my preferred way of cooking steaks. The cooler worked much better than expected, and didn’t lose any heat one I had it closed up.

Now that I’ve tried this a couple of times, I decided to drop the cash and buy a Sous Video Supreme Demi. I plan to cook this way a lot and the cooler setup would get old very quickly.

Give it a shot kids, it’s pretty awesome.

Personal, Technology, Web

Welcome Back

If you’re reading this, it means you’ve now found my bloggy blog at its new home on a VPS from Linode.

Why I’ve decided to move my blog is a tale of pain and woe. And one that I’m sure you would love to hear. So here goes!

The Past

Way back in Feb of 2006, I signed up for lifetime hosting at a little company called textdrive. They had a plan called the “Mixed Grill” for $499 which promised free web hosting for “as long as they exist”.

The idea was that you were paying up front as a way for the company to raise cash immediately to build out their infrastructure in exchange for a lifetime of limited hosting. I liked the idea and plunked down the cash. I got a slice of a FreeBSD box and was happy.

Not long after I joined, Textdrive became Joyent, and slowly started to add cloud capabilities on top of their shared hosting.

In 2007, I plunked down another $500 to take advantage of more storage and bandwidth offered by the 3 Martini Lunch plan.

Quickly following, Joyent decided to swap their architecture over to Solaris, and started the Shared Accelerators. They encouraged everyone on the older FreeBSD servers to migrate over. Because I was hosting about 6-7 domains and multiple wordpress and movable type installs, the migration process was going to be a bear, and because Joyent offered no help in the migration, I put it off for a long as I could. This turned out to be a huge mistake.

As time went on, Joyent left these FreeBSD servers running, but essentially allowed them to rot. I was more or less okay with this as the occasional downtime wasn’t a big deal with the stuff I was hosting. All was well.

In 2012, Joyent dropped the bomb on it’s lifetime customers. At first they basically told us to get fucked. It was only after a tremendous outcry that they reconsidered and offered to either refund our money or give 5 years of credit for a new shared hosting account. Jason Hoffman was tired of our shit, but he also didn’t want to deal with our whining any more.

That’s when Dean Allen rode back into the picture on his white horse. Dean was one of the co-founders of Textdrive who left after the Joyent acquisition. He offered to restart Textdrive as a new company and take all of us lifetime support customers under his wing. Woooo. I opted to move over to Textdrive with the promise of an automatic transition process to the new servers.

The Present

Unfortunately the new Textdrive has been a bungled affair from the start. They’ve constantly missed deadlines, screwed up migrations and ignored support tickets and calls. Remember when I said staying on the older FreeBSD machines was a mistake? Yeah. Textdrive transitioned me over, without any notice, to the new machines months after the original deadline. These machines were running newer versions of PHP and Apache which nuked the majority of my sites. I didn’t know until about a week later. I submitted a ticket, and hit them up on twitter only to get crickets in response.

I waited a few days for support, but it never came. I decided to see what I could do on my own. After a few hours of digging around their abysmal wiki, I figured out what happened, and what the new file paths and install versions were. I was able to get my sites back up and running, but I had no access to any admin tools like phpMyAdmin, or webmin. So I had no way to do a clean database dump from my numerous sites. But at least the sites were up. I had time to let Textdrive work out the remaining kinks.

That was, until about 10 days ago when MySQL on a number of their FreeBSD machines died due to a catastrophic disk error, bringing my sites down again. This is still not fixed. And ever in good form, Textdrive sent no notice. They say they are trying to recover from backup, but who knows when or if that will happen. I’ve put in another ticket and tried to contact them twice on twitter to just have me moved to a new host and they have completely ignored me. The status page on these migrations hasn’t been updated in over a month.

Time to move on.

So I am now faced with a choice. Find a new host, or host it myself. I looked at a lot of options, but I’ve resolved myself to never use shared hosting again, so it was down to dedicated hardware, or virtual hosting like Linode.

Dedicated hardware is stupidly expensive, and I don’t make money on my blogs, so that’s out. Linode is very tempting, but when I looked at what they had to offer, it became clear that I should just spin up my own VM. I have a machine at home that already hosts 3 virtual servers, adding another would be trivial.

So I went this route and set everything up. Unfortunately it turns out that Cox blocks incoming port 80 to the world. Ugh. Lots of wasted time.

So back to Linode! Linode makes setting up a new VPS surprisingly painless, but it’s never fun setting up a LAMP stack from scratch. But after a few hours of re-teaching myself server admin stuff I haven’t done in years, I’m back up and running.

In case you can’t tell from the rest of the post, I’d really advise against hosting anything with Textdrive or Joyent.