Category Archives: Idiots

Infernal Designs

Or: “Learn, guys.”

(With apologies to Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett for stealing one of their lines, John Gruber for borrowing his idea, JerkCity for using one of their character names, readers for putting them through this, and… oh, God. Everyone, for everything. Except AT&T. For anything.)

Satan holds audience in one of his smaller, but still imposing, rooms. He sits on a throne hewn of flint, its lines simple and rectangular, its bulk as intimidating as its dark-gray matte.

Two of his aspiring imps, Atandt and Sissko, approach the throne to present their work, a small white device Atandt holds before him. Atandt smiles unctuously, but then, he always smiles unctuously. One suspects that he’d sleep with that expression, if he ever slept.

Sissko, on the other hand, just stares off into the distance. His hands are constantly moving, half-raised, seeming to trace out abstract shapes. Their styles, however, differ fundamentally: it’s as though the left and right hand are working to completely separate ends. Which they usually are.

Satan: Report.

Atandt clears his throat and begins.

Atandt: It’s a network box. It grants those who pay me $150 the functionality that they thought they were buying when they signed up for a two-year contract in the first place.

Satan: (Nods once, briefly.) And?

Atandt: It’s bound to a strict limit of ten devices, which you have to add through a web interface that connects to my headquarters, giving me insight into your associations.

Satan: (A ghost of a smile flits briefly across his face.) So the arbitrary limits are accompanied by potential violations of privacy. Nice. What else?

Atandt: By default, any voice communication still counts against users’ minutes, even though they’re like as not using bandwidth purchased from a completely independent party to transmit the packets. If they want unlimited minutes, they have to pay me an additional $20 a month.

Satan considers what he’s heard so far with one raised eyebrow. His earlier brief smile has lulled Atandt into a false sense of security.

Satan: Hmm. Go on.

Atandt: Well, that’s pretty much it.

Satan: (eyes narrowing) Excuse me?

Atandt: (caught off-guard) Sir?

With a speed that belies his size, Satan takes to his feet, his eyes glowing the deep orange of late-campfire embers. Smoke wafts ominously from his tightly-clenched left fist.

Satan: You’ve had months to work on this, time to study every major competitor’s submission, and this is the extent of your imagination? (His lips curl as he snarls the end of the question, revealing teeth whose clean perfection does nothing to dull the razor’s edge of their menace.)

Atandt: (stammering) S…sir?

Satan’s eyes glow brightly enough that both Atandt and Sissko are lit like beachgoers facing a sunset. Sissko looks vaguely nonplussed, as usual, but Atandt clearly realizes that the sunset he’s facing could well be his own.

Satan: Give me one reason why I shouldn’t snuff you out of existence right now! Besides force-feeding you rusted razor wire so I can add you to the Penance Abacus!

The thought of the Penance Abacus pales Atandt, his skin fading to an unhealthily dull brick red. He hears a voice from far away, and it takes him a moment to realize it’s his own.

Atandt: (softly, blinking) Our solution to the problem will require the user’s solution of a similar, but not identical, problem.

Satan: (still irate, but intrigued) Explain.

Atandt: (clinging to the loose thread that’s barely keeping him out of the abyss) We’ll insist that the unit can only be used in certain geographic areas. We’ll enforce that by building GPS into it, and requiring GPS confirmation of the unit’s position before enabling it.

Satan pauses thoughtfully for a moment, then sits back down. He tilts his head and purses his lips thoughtfully, idly drumming on the throne’s armrest with the claws of his left hand. Atandt tries not to flinch with every flare of ensuing sparks. Then, to both his and Satan’s surprise, Sissko speaks for the first time.

Sissko: Doesn’t that sort of defeat the purpose of the whole thing? Requiring people who can’t get a solid cell-tower signal to get a clean GPS signal? Anybody with a fast, wired internet connection who’s stuck inside a building without some view of the sky will be screwed. (He realizes that the other two are staring at him the way automotive engineers would contemplate a colleague bemoaning that a proposed engine design would deliver at least 150 miles per gallon.) Oh. Right.

Satan: Is it feasible?

Sissko: Sure. Of course, it’d mean stripping other hardware features down to the bare minimum. (He notes that the other two are staring again.) So, uh, bonus.

Satan: (not yet convinced that Sissko is getting the picture) Describe the interface.

Sissko: Blinking lights on the front?

Satan nods once, prompting Sissko to continue.

Sissko: No built-in HTTP server or support for SNMP. No logging. Basically, no way at all to tell what the heaven is going on or what, if anything, is wrong.

Satan: (nodding more firmly this time) Good.

Atandt: (Now really getting into the spirit of the thing.) We’ll add a vague but long delay to the setup process. Tell users that after they’ve done everything on their end, they’ll have to wait for something on the order of two hours to see if things are working. (Thinks for a moment.) We’ll even instruct them, in the manual, to “relax” while they’re twiddling their thumbs, waiting to see if the blinking lights go solid.

Satan: And in the end, it’ll work?

There is a pregnant pause, at the end of which the three burst out laughing, Atandt so hard that sulphuric-acid tears start glistening in his eyes.

Atandt: (Wiping his cheeks dry.) No. But we’ll provide a technical-support number that they can call. It’ll answer with a completely confusing message that’ll make end-users think they’ve accidentally dialed some internal-service number.

Satan: Won’t there be a website that they can use to sidestep the support line?

Atandt: (Shrugging.) Of course. The support site and the promotional site will be one and the same. People trying to visit the former, in a desperate attempt to get running the hardware they already paid for, will be treated to a video ad that starts automatically, doesn’t have pause or mute buttons, and has a lady with a perky voice delivering the pitch. Not only will they harbor homicidal urges towards her after the third time she’s given her spiel, tops, but links on that page will open new tabs in the foreground, so that desperate attempts to click her away will only hide her in the background while she rambles on.

Satan regards Atandt levelly for a moment, briefly wondering if he should worry about the understudy’s seemingly bottomless well of perversity. Then he remembers that he’s the father of lies, and Atandt merely his prodigal son.

Satan: Won’t they try to return it?

Atandt: (Unctuous grin now back to full power.) What, and implicitly admit that I suckered them into buying a half-baked product? Again? Besides, it’s got firmware. As long as you dangle the hope in front of them that a future update might fix their problems, people will bend over for anything.

Satan: Hmm. Good point.

Sissko: Also, we’ll make sure there’s a port for an external GPS antenna. That way, at least some of them will burn just a little more time and money on the acquisition of extra gear that might make things work. So we foster false hope from both the software and hardware ends.

Satan: (leans back in the throne, contemplating them both, impressed despite himself) Well. After a bit of a rough start, you’ve accounted yourselves well. (He waves them off.) Carry on. Oh, and send Sony in on your way out.

“Feels like a fire down below…”

We interrupt your regularly-scheduled litany of borderline-morbid neurological news for something completely different.

Frank and I were returning from coffee yesterday afternoon, and he was dropping me off at the side entrance to Cisco Building 20, when I noticed something unusual in the enclosed area housing the dumpsters. Through the narrow gap beneath the locked steel gates, bright orange flames danced, licking the air.

“Hey, do you see that?” I asked, pointing. Indeed he did. He slowed the car, and we took enough of a look to verify that, yes indeed, something was on fire in there.

By the time he’d parked the car, it was clear that more was burning than just the bits of cardboard we’d spotted earlier. The flames had spread to the contents of at least one of the dumpsters.

Since there didn’t seem to be an immediate threat of the fire spreading, we decided to call Cisco Security rather than 911. Not having their number in my phone at the time — I certainly do now — I headed to the building’s lobby to call in the alert, then headed back to the side entrance.

The first Security truck arrived promptly, but its occupant didn’t really seem to have much more idea of what to do than we did. “Yep, it’s on fire all right” seemed to be the extent of the immediate response.

This was approximately the point where Frank and I decided be a bit more… hands-on, and headed into the building to grab a fire extinguisher or two. I will cheerfully confess to a certain amount of glee at the prospect, as I had never had a chance to use an actual fire extinguisher against an actual fire before.

Standing on the concrete base of lamppost and bracing ourselves against the enclosure wall, we took turns aiming for the base of the flames and spewing gouts of powdery white extinguishing compound at it. This put out the visible flames, but we could tell that hot spots remained beneath the ashes.

At this point a second Security truck appeared, and its occupant actually unlocked the gates. We had a better shot at the flames now, but had completely discharged our extinguisher. After checking in his truck for another, the second Security guard came up empty, so Frank and I went back into the building for seconds. We handed one of our finds to the guard, who was apparently unfamiliar with the whole “pull pin to enable trigger” concept. A few more blasts of noxious white powder — nearly as suffocating to humans as to the combustive process — and some poking of the embers, and things seemed to be under control. (In the process we noticed that there was in fact a fire extinguisher attached to the inside of the enclosure. Security Guard #2 wasn’t any more aware of it than we had been.)

I had to leave to pick my father up from the airport at this point, so I missed whatever epilogue might have unfolded. While on my way to Terminal 1, though, I made the mistake of licking my lips. Ugh. There was enough powdery residue on my skin to convey a hint of bitterness, unwholesome and deeply synthetic. (That stuff’s probably carcinogenic. Hahahahaha. Carcinogenic! Ahahahahahaha! Ahem.)

This story has two morals. First and most importantly: when something’s on fire, call 911. Do not screw around with half measures. Do not assume that the employees of your private security firm have the training, equipment, or expertise to handle the problem effectively.

The second, less crucial moral has to do with the guy on the third-floor balcony who was jabbering away on his cell phone — and not, from the sound of it, to the fire department — while the contents of the dumpster were blazing merrily away a few dozen yards away from him. I feel a certain measure of satisfaction in the fact that he must have been engulfed in clouds of the asphyxiating powder our amateur efforts at fire suppression unleashed, and I hope it ruined his day. But he served to illustrate an important point: don’t be a self-absorbed little twit if you can help it.

Here endeth the lesson.


I just deactivated my Facebook account, and scheduled its MySpace counterpart for permanent destruction. It’s enormously liberating, and I highly recommend it.

Like a good number of others, I’ve found that Twitter does a very credible job of keeping me abreast of what my friends are doing, without the usual attendant toxic waste of time and resources. (Sparkling GIFs! “Virtual presents” that cost real money! Zombies! Fuck all of that. It turns out some things are so onerous that people will actually submit to a 140-character constraint on message size just to escape them.)

The Quotable Editors

In commentary upon a post by fellow blogger dday, The Poor Man’s The Editors hurls a dense little ball of righteous fire:

I’d like to know, for example, how close intelligence subcommittee head Jay Rockefeller has been to the various Bush-era deceptions and shannanigans — partly for the health of the Republic and yada yada, but mostly so I can settle a bet as to whether he is simply the stupidest man alive, or if he is the stupidest man alive and a corrupt asshole. I mean, seriously: how fucking stupid do you have to be to get rolled by Pat Roberts? That’s like getting grifted by the Pepperidge Farm guy. Jesus.

Amen, and Rah!

Suggestions to the Clinton Campaign

  1. If you’re going to accuse your opponent of plagiarism, it might be a good idea to check first that the alleged plagiaree is not, in fact, a friend of the alleged plagiarist, one who will readily tell the paper of record that not only do the two of them routinely kick speech ideas back and forth, but that in this particular instance he encouraged his friend to adopt the approach and rhetorical device used.

  2. Crack some windows at campaign HQ. Think about shelling out for a Vornado or two while you’re at it. (You do still have enough cash on hand for a couple of air circulators, right?) The stench of desperation has got to be giving some of your more sensitive staffers splitting headaches by now.

Stellar Displacement

In a field that has seen more than its share of shameless posturing, this still manages to impress me:

“If I fight on in my campaign, all the way to the convention, I would forestall the launch of a national campaign and make it more likely that Senator Clinton or Obama would win. And in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign, be a part of aiding a surrender to terror,” Romney told the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.

It’s like a neutron star of mendacity, a few inches of self-serving hyperbole layered atop a mind-bogglingly dense core of pure horseshit, the whole mess spinning thousands of times a second.

I haven’t seen this kind of devotion to the common good since Marion Barry expounded upon the virtues of smoking crack as an act of public service.

If we could only produce fertilizer of this purity on demand, we could make the deserts bloom.

At Long Last

The question has hung in the air for over half a decade now. Friends have asked it. So have strangers. I’ve never known exactly how to reply.

On Tuesday, lying in a dentist’s chair, listening to an FM radio station burble a non-stop stream of Christmas songs — not the occasional Christmas tune interspersed with more generic easy listening, but one long, unbroken, treacly strand of artificially-sweetened “holiday cheer” — I thought I could almost discern the outlines of an answer; the buzzing of the drill, however, made it hard to be sure.

Yesterday I wandered the aisles of Home Depot, subjected to more uninterrupted Christmas music. It might have been during the chorus of “Jingle Bell Rock”, a song that has always made me want to inflict grievous bodily harm upon its original perpetrators, that I recognized, in a moment of blinding clarity, the truth that had always been right before my eyes:

This is why I hate America.


Is it really so much to ask that if you want to work in the tech industry, you should be able to perform basic triage of a problem, identify the relevant aspects of your configuration or methodology, and synthesize a succinct summary of the preceding items? Apparently, yes. Certainly it seems to much to assume that your cow-orkers will possess these skills.

All I know is that if I get too many more bug reports of the “Wah! It doesn’t work!” variety, with no establishing context and no further detail, I’m going to hoist the black flag and start inflicting paper cuts with printed pages from “How to Ask Questions The Smart Way“.

Drilling Into the Bottom of the Barrel

John Gruber takes a break from the usual “Mac Nerdery” to bestow the Jackass of the Week award upon Rush Limbaugh, for picking on a man whose nervous system is basically falling apart.

Gruber is constrained by both decorum and tradition — Jackass of the Week is a running series, after all — from calling Limbaugh something harsher. I, however, am not. “Asshole” comes to mind, of course, but the term’s been bleached a bit by overuse. “Scum” seems short, sharp, and to-the-point.

This, to use Lois McMaster Bujold’s expression, “is not news“, but it bears periodic repeating anyway.