Statistics Rantlet

A woman on CTV Vancouver earlier this evening described the “probability” of the Canucks winning tomorrow’s Stanley Cup Final as “50-50.” NO. JUST… NO. I see this all the time and it drives me up the wall. (I may need a vacation.) There are two outcomes. If the event was truly random, then yes, you would have equal probabilities of either outcome, and you could legitimately call it “50-50.” Sporting events are not random events — even in the most evenly matched series, there…

… oh, you know what? Nobody cares. Innumeracy wins. Again.


CBC: Don’t text 911

RCMP in British Columbia are warning people not to text message 911 in emergencies.

Sandy Vogstad, with the RCMP’s communication centre, said the province’s 911 system can’t deliver text messages.

“It is the system in general that there is no methodology available technically to push that text through the whole system,” Vogstad said.

Reading comments on is generally a waste of time, but these ones are especially precious — throngs of people arguing that the 911 system is broken, or backwards, or that there’s something wrong with the outfit because they don’t have a spare cell phone kicking around that can receive text messages. (We’ll tackle the mentality that would possess someone to send an SMS message to 911 in the first place some other time.) It’s a lot like reading or something about how the telecommunication companies are a bunch of incompetent idiots because Cat5 is really cheap from Future Shop, so how hard would it be to string more wire around for more bandwidth? Everyone’s a frigging expert on absolutely everything now, even people who don’t know anything.

I’m guessing that the folks who are arguing that 911 should accept SMS don’t realize there’s no such thing as a universal 911 access point. That dialing 911 from a cell phone routes to the cell’s (not the phone’s) default PSAP. That SMS contains no routing information other than a destination address. That GPS is somehow a panacea for finding people (it’s not — the limitations of GPS are poorly understood by people who do not normally use satellite navigation systems for actual navigation purposes that don’t involve staying on the road). That all you need to do is dial 911, shout “Help!” into the phone, and have the universe collapse in on you.

Of course, it doesn’t work like that. It never does, never has, and never will. That’s the perception, though, and I’m trying to puzzle through whose fault that is. The ubiquity of technology — the rapid proliferation of the various types of personal networking gear, and the friendliness of it all — is probably to blame here. But the reality of the telecommunications world is much, much different. Sure, RIM can run all the BlackBerries in the world through their servers. But what happens when those servers go down? They’re built to a fault-tolerance level that would make most people cry out in pain, but even they break, and the howling when they do is deafening.

Doing life-critical telecoms engineering — which is what 911 is — is staggeringly difficult, because it has to work. It’s not OK for the system to be up 99.999% of the time: it has to be up all of the time, and it has to fail gracefully and be workable even when it isn’t. You cannot do this with stuff you buy at Radio Shack, no matter how well this works for you in your day-to-day life.

“My X can do Y” is not a good thing to tell professional engineers and designers whose work is being held to a significantly higher standard than anything you have direct experience with. The amount of effort that goes into this stuff is remarkable, and it never ceases to amaze me that it works as well as it does.


“Didn’t you get the message I sent you?”
“No, what message? When?”
“I sent it last week.”
“To my mailbox?”
[rummage rummage rummage]
“No, not here.”
“Really? I’m looking at it right now.”
“What address did you send it to? Work? My personal one?”
“No, your Facebook account.”


E-mail works. I know you and Mark Zuckerberg only discovered the Internet in about 1999, but hey, there’s a history here, we have tools that work very well for doing certain things, and there’s a reason they’ve been around longer, in some cases, than your parents have been alive, you nitwits. Yeah, OK, I am not, and will never be, one of the Cool Web 2.0 Kids, but I’m also betting my messaging application is a lot more robust, can be made a hell of a lot more secure, and is a lot easier to deal with than some crufted-on proprietary Web-based e-mail clone.

For old time's sake

I unsubscribed from a bunch of mailing lists I don’t read anymore in an attempt to cut down on the amount of e-mail I need to deal with on a day-to-day basis. One of them was still managed not by mailman (the evilness of which is self-evident even to casual observers), not by Majordomo (“most recent version is dated January 2000”), but by LISTSERV. Which is something, in this day and age; you don’t see that very often.

LISTSERV has a whole host of weird behaviors that, even back in the day, seemed oddly quaint; now, they’re just bizarre. (It always felt to me like it was written by and for people who thought JCL and its ilk were the pinnacle of human-computer interaction. For all I know, this may actually be true — but whatever.) I had, however, forgotten about this little gem, tacked on to the end of my “SIGNOFF” request:

Summary of resource utilization
 CPU time:        0.010 sec                Device I/O:        0
 Overhead CPU:    0.004 sec                Paging I/O:        0
 CPU model:         8-CPU 1.6GHz Xeon (1M)

It warms my heart to think that somewhere on the Internet, someone still cares about overhead and process accounting for e-mail.

Weapons grade stupidity

Do not, if you value your sanity, time, or generosity, read the comments attached to this blog entry. Especially if you know anything about Richard Stallman. The short version is that the original poster, David Schlesinger, makes a lot of good points and asks a lot of good questions, and then legions of RMS fanboys rush to defend their hero against what is, frankly, rather indefensible behavior.

It’s 2009! This isn’t cool!

On some level it’s a little bit like reading comments on YouTube videos — the stupidity is so bad that it burns your psyche, and a small part of you dies inside each time you do it. But this is worse, because it’s coming from people who should clearly know better and don’t, and moreover aren’t interested in getting to understand the issues better, either.

It’s really disheartening. Microsoft has many faults, but I don’t recall them insulting approximately 50% of the human population by virtue of their gender.


There are few things more disheartening to a nerd than trying to retrieve data off a hard drive that is in the process of failing intermittently. It’s like playing a kind of backwards slot machine: how much data will come off in this session? 10MB or 10GB? And how long until it fails catastrophically and you’re stuck with no way to get the data off entirely? Who knows!

Big hard drives are nice. What would be nicer is if a good backup strategy existed, beyond, “duh, buy more hard drives.” Um, yes. So I can have a collection of variably viable devices lying around the house, the failure of any one of which might leave me without access to my files. Yeah, okay, I know about mirrored RAID and all that other fun stuff, but damnit, you still need some kind of offline backup strategy!

I never thought I’d say this, but I miss tape.


After 6+ months of letting it pile up in my mailbox, I have managed to reduce my “unread, unsorted, and unreplied-to” collection of e-mail from 3,651 messages to 0. Okay, I had to vaporize a bunch of mailing list traffic I probably didn’t care about to do it, but I’m all caught up, and Thunderbird will no longer taunt me with the “hey, lazy bastard!” counter on the left side of my screen. Thank god.

Note to self: Having a Blackberry is great, in that you keep on top of the e-mail you care about. Reading threads on NANOG, on the ‘berry, is not so much fun. So maybe think about how to deal with that problem.

But, hey! I found an interesting gem in my inbox, and it was only from late in April! Yes! Timeliness, thy name is LiT! Brazillians hack US Navy satellites. It’s like Captain Midnight, but 1,000 times cooler.