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The internet runs on…

Let me put that off for just a second and consider something slightly different — not what it runs on, but what it’s full of …

Well, it’s full of lots of things. It’s full of ‘information’, although one should probably possess a heaping helping of skepticism before actually using any of it. (Skepticism is valuable. Everyone should have some. It’s like Math 121 that way.) It’s full of memes. (Not mimes. Fortunately.) It’s full of porn. (Rule 34 applies to the internet, of course. Everyone knows there are no exceptions to Rule 34.) Germaine sums up the whole situation quite nicely.

That’s what it’s full of, but what does it run on? Well, people have claimed that it runs on tears, on cats, on dogs, on sarcasm. Slightly more serious people have pointed at things like operating systems and web server software. Even more serious people claim that it runs on whatever makes them money. Those things aside, what it really runs on is standards.

Because standards are important. Why? Because any time there is more than one of anything and it needs to interact with anything else, a description of HOW the interaction works is needed. (And one thing you can say about the internet is that there’s more than one of, well, everything.)

In short, you need a standard.

When you need a light bulb, there are standards. When you make cheesecake to feed unexpected late-night visitors, there are standards. When you need to send email, there are standards. (Lots of standards. Lots and lots of standards.) Standards are everywhere.

And they come from all over the place. They can be put forward by one person (if we’re lucky, it’s a very clever person). Sometimes they’re created by corporations and institutions who want to be able to make more money. (In the process, sometimes decisions are made for totally unexpected reasons.) Sometimes they’re written by groups of experienced, capable and thoughtful people, sensitive to the needs of the community and the capabilities and limitations of technology who subject their proposals to vigorous peer review. (Can you tell I like that kind?)

And of course, no matter where they come from, sometimes folks ignore them. Because they know better. Or they think they’re above such things. Or they want to make more money. (Corporations hate standards. They can get in the way of making money, after all.)

Anyway, the third process above has led to some incredibly useful stuff. If you’ve ever sent or received an email, you have that process to thank. If you’ve ever connected a computer to the internet, you’ve used a standard created that way. If you’ve ever named a computer

Naming a computer is hard. Well, it’s not really hard — all you have to do is edit a file, after all — but it’s easy to do badly. For example, some years ago I started a job where they had recently acquired a new server. Its name? NEWVAX, because it was new and because it was a Vax. That was all well and good but after a couple of years — heck after the VERY NEXT MACHINE was bought — the name just became silly.


So when Ms. Rose and I had to name twenty-five computers we thought a little (well, maybe more than a little) about what to name them. Because of the room and table dimensions, it became obvious that they would be arranged in four groups of six, with the server in a locked closet in the corner. Fine. So we named the first group of six after characters in Cerebus the Aardvark, the second after characters in the Legion of Super-Heroes, the third after characters in the Justice League, the fourth (you knew it was coming) after characters in the Batman mythos.

Tidy. Ample room for expansion. Hard to confuse with Real Life. Memorable. Rfc1178-compliant. Win.

But there was the server. What should we call it? Pardon me while I reminisce a bit.

Before we were ‘given’ the room, it had held the previous generation of computer lab — a couple of servers, a host of dumb terminals, some graphics gear nailed to a table and a printer or two. It was nothing too fancy, but did the job. Ms. Rose was in charge of the care and feeding of that lab.

One Saturday she got a phone call — the lab wasn’t working properly and could she look at it? Being a responsible sort, off she went. When she got there, she verified that it wasn’t working properly (usually a good first step) and looked around for a reason.

H’m. The servers didn’t seem to be communicating with each other which had caused NFS to hang (it does that, part of its endearing charm) which, in turn, had caused almost everything else to grind to a halt. Okay — problem understood, if not solved. But what had happened? H’m again.

Turned out that there were breaks in the ethernet cable. Well, that would do it. Easy enough to fix, but what had happened? And why was that window open? Perhaps there had been an… intruder. (The screens in that building can be opened from the outside simply by pushing on them, after all.) But why would an intruder cut the ethernet?

Because apparently the piquant bouquet of a moderately aged rg58 is irresistible to sciurus carolinensis, that’s why. A particularly enterprising gastronome had entered the lab through the open window, bypassed the screen and had a late lunch on the ethernet, thereby halting the lab (and coincidentally sending the message that working on computing assignments on a Saturday afternoon was something to be deprecated). After lunch was over he moved on to dessert.

Dessert was the power cord attached to one of the printers. It disagreed with him. In fact, it disagreed with him so much that he never ate anything ever again. Heck, he didn’t even leave the premises — there he was, teeth still firmly clenched on his last post-meal treat.

It was the ultimate in negative restaurant reviews — “I hated the food so much I made the proprietor dispose of a dead body.”

Which caused a new problem. Fixing the lab was fairly simple — string some new cable, reboot a couple of machines, replace a power cord — but there was the little matter of a furry (and, unsurprisingly, somewhat fluffy) corpse. The building janitor was looked for; unsurprisingly (it was Saturday after all) he was nowhere to be found. The buildings-grounds-and-miscellaneous-infrastructure folks were called. Unfortunately, there weren’t a lot of incidents of unexpected death in university buildings and they had to be convinced this was something they had to deal with. And unfortunately this was before the era of helpful blogs and youtube videos so they didn’t really know what to do. Eventually, though, someone showed up and — with the help of the handy and resourceful IT professional — took the dissatisfied diner away. After that we have no idea what they did with him. (?)

The story spread and was told and retold. (With each retelling it became more vivid and baroque. Eventually Ms. Rose was presented with a home-made stuffed squirrel (not) with Xs for eyes and a chunk of quad sewn into his teeth.) Early in the process, the squirrel was given a name — he became Bunky or sometimes Bunky The Evil Squirrel.


When we needed a name for the server it was only logical to think back to Bunky and give him the (limited, alas — such is the nature of technology) immortality he so richly deserved. The server became ‘decsqurl’, for Dec Server Queen’s Undergraduate and Research Lab. And buried in the DNS was the alias ‘bunky’.

Sometimes choosing a good name is a lot of work. Dead bodies aren’t always involved, though.



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One of the nice things — or at least one of the interesting things — about living in a middleish sort of latitude (about 44 degrees if you were wondering; about 44 degrees even if you weren’t) is (are?) the seasons. Things change, the view outside the window is rarely the same for long. From spring days where slightly pasty semi-clothed people wave giant fly swatters in the back yard to summer evenings where the sun doesn’t want to set to bone-chilling winter days where it’s dark well before dinnertime, it’s always a little different from the week before. And the transition from one season to another?  That might just be the best part.

Which is just a roundabout way of saying that, after an extended overture, it’s spring. I like spring. I might like the transition from winter to spring even more, though. Quite simply, it’s a joy.

Well, mostly.

The days get longer. It gets warmer. You get to see the snow melt. The garden starts to appear. But you also get to see every single ‘present’ the neighborhood canines have left on the lawn in the last four months. You get to see all the winter kill that you have to clean up. And you have to chip at least five inches of ice off of the front porch. (For this there are purpose-built tools designed for the job, some of them quite good. Many folks, though, use tools improvised from whatever they find in the garage. Some, the balance of their minds clearly disturbed, use wildly inappropriate ones. For example.)

Anyway, it’s spring. Which means the end of, among other things, winter sports. Winter hockey, for example, (which is not the same as spring hockey which itself differs from summer hockey) ended about a month ago.  When it winds down there are various… traditions. The obligatory ‘banquet’ (which often just means going to a bar and eating chips). The inevitable picture of tired-looking and smelly hockey players. Viz:

hackers 2014_15_edited

Tired-looking and smelly hockey players.

And trophies.

This year, for example, I was the proud (?) recipient of the ‘invisible defenceman’ award. (In the spirit of invisibility, the trophy is transparent. With this in mind, I choose to interpret the award as a recognition of my incredibly stealthy and effective play. Unfortunately I know better — it’s telling me that I’m never in the right place or anything close to it. Oh well, it could have been worse — one lucky soul took home the ‘Most Circles Around The Net While Possessing The Puck Without Scoring a Goal’ award.)

The curling season also ended recently. Despite an extended mid-season death spiral (not that kind) I managed occasional flashes of competence during the playoffs — almost enough to salvage a result. Unfortunately, though, the flashes didn’t last long enough and I was left with the memory of losing the final game of the year because of a bad miss on my LAST SHOT OF THE YEAR. (Talk about treasured memories that will haunt me (is that the right verb?) all summer.) It could have ended on a high note but, um, it didn’t.

A tradition for the end of curling season is ‘skating out the ice’ — a day when people are encouraged to show up and use the ice in a non-traditional way after which the power is turned off and things, you know, start to melt. Every year a modest number of people show up and demonstrate that they’re better skaters than I am. (Except for some of the infants. I can say without fear of contradiction that I’m better than some of those.) This year I learned (or at least re-learned) several things.

  • Curling ice really isn’t particularly easy to skate on.
  • Skating is harder when you don’t carry a bludgeon.
  • Stepping down six inches to get to the ice makes starting to skate just that little bit harder.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one to have that last revelation. After my skate I was sitting on the side boards putting my shoes on when a young lady — she couldn’t have been more than about six — attempted to climb down onto the ice. She was having a certain amount of difficulty with this. After falling once (I felt absurdly proud that this was more than me) and almost falling twice more, she proclaimed to all and sundry

“I can’t get it up.”

Every day for the last two weeks I’ve tried to figure out why she chose to phrase it in exactly that fashion.

Perfecting 3: The Search for Spock Breakfast a different ACK

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As I’ve mentioned before, obsession is rarely healthy and never pretty. Despite the fact that I know this, I still struggle with it. (Blame it on a 1976 high school project on mental health if you like. I drew ‘neuroses’ and nothing has been the same ever since. Oh well, the first step and all that.) And of course I don’t direct my obsessive tendencies into constructive or socially endorsed channels, not me. No, I try to beat the high score in obscure video games, watch movies more times than is strictly considered ‘normal’ and I count the number of times that people say the word ‘perfect.’ (A week ago last Friday the nice lady named after a soccer team who brought me a pizza said it twice. For example.)

And why do I do this? Because ever since someone pointed out to me that waiters say ‘perfect’ a lot, I’ve noticed EVERY SINGLE ONE. (To be honest, it drives me a little crazy. But I can’t stop. I suspect my friends wish that I would. Not gonna happen.)

And it’s getting worse. Or at least no better.

A couple of Saturdays ago we (Ms. Rose and I) were at the Insomniac Capriform Cafe for breakfast. I always (well, almost always) have the same thing — bacon and eggs — partly because I enjoy the irony of eating bacon at a nominally vegetarian restaurant. Oh, and a beverage. In the summer the beverage is often lemonade (because lemonade is seasonal); in the winter it’s usually water (because water isn’t). So I ordered my plate-o-irony and the nice lady whose hair happened to be green that day dutifully wrote it down. And then I ordered my glass of water.

Now, water as an accompaniment to a restaurant meal can be a lot of things. It can mean that you’d rather concentrate on the food. It can suggest that you’re all about the hydration. Or it can simply imply that you’re nothing more than a cheap bastard. When I asked for water, however, she said something totally unexpected.

She said “Perfect.”

That stopped me in my tracks.

Her response told me that the bacon wasn’t perfect. The eggs? Not perfect. The (real) homefries and toast and strawberry jam? Not perfect. But the tap water? That was perfect.

I was confused. I stood there with my mouth hanging open for, well, longer than I like to think. (Not my best look.) Then she asked me where I was sitting. (The ICC doesn’t have table service — you order your food at the counter and the kitchen staff brings it to your table. So they have to ask you where you’re sitting when you order.)

I pointed toward our table where Ms. Rose was sitting, wearing a pink sweater and reading a newspaper or something.

“Pink sweater” I told the green-haired lady.

Apparently the pink sweater was perfect too.



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Over the years, Man (By which I mean H. sapiens sapiens, not just boys. The capital ‘M’ means that I’m trying to project a certain level of gravitas here. Is it working?) has struggled with a lot of questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? What is the nature of reality? How do we know something exists? Is there a God? What is the meaning of lifeHow many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop? Complicated questions. Important questions. Big questions.

Some years ago, I gained some insight into one of them from a totally unexpected direction. (Not the Journal of Fluid Mechanics.)

An aside. (It only looks like one. It isn’t. Really. Would I lie to you?)

I’ve talked about call centers a few times (well, maybe more than a few), pretty much entirely in the context of computer tech support. These call centers exist to take your call (duh) and delay, complicate and restrict access to the people who can actually help you so that the computer company can claim proudly that they have an effective support arm but at the same time render it ineffectual. So they can make more money. Because, as it is so often, it’s all about the money.

(The purpose of a support arm isn’t actually to help people. It’s to help people who are able to pay while keeping costs tightly controlled and forcing customers users to jump through elaborate hoops so they feel helpless, powerless and lost. And did I mention Procedures and Metrics? Managers (and other people in expensive suits) love Metrics. (Not that kind. Odds are they wouldn’t understand one of those.) And Procedures? They love those too. (Procedures are sort of like cancer: nobody knows exactly where they come from but they can’t be ignored.) (Am I just being cynical? I don’t think so.)

It’s an interesting factoid that one of the best pieces of software I’ve ever used had the development team doing product support — without a call center.

Well, I find it interesting.

Since it’s all about the money and because phone calls are essentially free these days, call centers pop up in the oddest places. For example, for years the multinational computer company that I’ve never explicitly named had a call center in Cape Breton. Atlantic Canada. Cape Breton was a logical choice: it has an adequate communication infrastructure, an educated population and perhaps most importantly, economic depression and massive unemployment. The fact that the population is good-natured and friendly almost certainly wasn’t part of the equation but it made dealing with that particular call center, not fun exactly, but not entirely a chore.

One day I had to call in a fairly minor hardware problem; I forget the details but it was probably something innocuous like a failed hard drive. (In a system with mirrored drives and up-to-date backups, a single drive failure is usually nothing to get excited about. Hard drives, when you have enough of them, sometimes fail a lot.) It happened late on a Friday afternoon, late enough that I had already gone home but one of my homebrew monitors (sort of like this one but, you know, written by me so a little uglier) had detected a fault and sent me a message. I sat down in the Green Chair of Thinkitude And Blowing Stuff Up and called the magic phone number. As luck would have it, the Fairy Godmother of call centers routed my call to Cape Breton.

It was late afternoon/early evening here; in Cape Breton it was an hour later so it was early evening. On a Friday. The exact time when a call-center-answering-the-phone guy might be expected to be a little… testy. But he was pleasant. Heck, he was more than pleasant — he was cheerful. Upbeat. Sunny, even. And then things got weird.

“Is that Rose?”

Wait, what? I hadn’t identified myself, I hadn’t given him the ridiculously long string of digits that identified me as a customer, I hadn’t provided a serial number or a contract number or any of the other forms of identification that might tell him who I was. He was basing his guess on me saying “Hello, I’d like to open a hardware issue please.” And how many calls does he handle in a week? Hundreds, certainly. I was impressed.

(That may have been the tipping point for me forming an unofficial Procedure of my own — if I got a difficult call center I’d call back over and over until random chance ‘took’ me to Cape Breton.)

But I was talking about Existence and Reality and stuff.

Back in 2002, the computer company that I’ve never explicitly named introduced a new server named after a breakfast staple (not bacon; I don’t find that particular meme particularly interesting). It was labelled ‘entry-level’ so they weren’t suitable for any sort of heavy lifting but they were entirely capable of modest production duties or development and testing. Plus they were dirt cheap so we bought a bunch — for a while there was quite a lot of them in the machine room — often in piles on shelves. (Stacks of computers, while convenient, are a bad idea: when one breaks — and one thing you can say with certainty about computers is that they WILL eventually break — it’s INEVITABLY the one on the bottom of the pile.)

One day I took one out of its box, put it on a shelf, connected a power cable, a network cable, a console cable and turned it on.

Nothing happened. DOA. Well, that happens sometimes. No worries, though — it was under warranty so I just had to call the brain trust and get them to send either a part or a guy named Mike with a part. Like I said, no worries.


The computer company that I’ve never explicitly named had recently opened a new call center somewhere in the third world. They had told me, though, that this call center wouldn’t be handling any of our calls.

Guess what? They lied.

“Hello, I’d like to open a hardware call. It will be a warranty call.”

“I can do that for you. Can you give me the serial number of the affected system?”

“I can.” I did.

“I’m sorry — that machine does not exist.”  Not “can you repeat that”, not “can you double-check that”, not “I can’t find that serial number in my records”, but “that machine does not exist.”

And then he hung up.

Earlier I mentioned that one of life’s Big Questions was ‘How do we know something exists?’ Well, we know that a computer exists if a call center employee in India says that it doesn’t.

Like I said, you can sometimes find insight into the Big Questions in totally unexpected places.



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I had this appointment.

H’m. It occurs to me that many of my ‘stories’ start with that line or one just like it — probably too many. I guess I just seem to encounter absurdities and incongruities when I have appointments. I don’t think it’s anything I do.

At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.

Be that as it may, I did have this appointment. I even decided that I wasn’t going to be late. (After all, they have free wi-fi and comfy chairs in the waiting room — perfect for working on rambling, incoherent and overwrought stories.) The appointment was with a very nice young lady who wears red shoes (not orange, thankfully) and, despite the fact that she sometimes wears a white coat, it’s the wrong right kind so she’s decidedly non-scary. (Well any more than is usual — girls are, after all, intrinsically scary.)

The appointment wasn’t that far from home and since I’m not totally pathetic and since the city has, um, ‘restricted’ parking in that area I decided to walk. (It was also the first day of spring. That may have been a factor too.) I went to the corner, turned down the street named after a dead mathematician and there it was — a parked car.


(I’ve mentioned before that our neighbourhood is a popular parking Destination so it’s not really horrific. I exaggerate shamelessly.)

It had, unsurprisingly, a license plate. A standard, government-issued, four-letters-three-numbers generic, you take what you get license plate.

The four letters were BDSM.

I was surprised.

I wasn’t shocked or appalled or anything. Just surprised.

I mean, the Ministry of Transport has a faceless drone (please tell me there’s not a whole office of them) who probably wears grey suits who probably toils somewhere in a grey little office (probably dusty — it has to be dusty) inside a grey little building and his (her?) job is to veto ‘inappropriate’ license plates. ‘TRYMYBED?’  Vetoed. ‘GNGSHW?’ Vetoed. ‘CARRNAGE?’ Vetoed. Back in ’07 he (?) wouldn’t let a minister named Joanne have the plate ‘REV JO.’ While he (?) ‘mostly’ deals with vanity plates, his (?) job also extends to ‘conventional’ plates — certain letter combinations just aren’t allowed, all in the name of protecting the delicate sensibilities of the Ontario public. And we appreciate it.

I guess.

The thing that surprised me is that the Grey Little Man (or Woman) approved BDSM. And not just once but 999 times. Odd, even in the current Post-Jian era.

My first thought was that maybe this meant that it’s possible for bureaucracies of faceless drones to have a sense of humour. Maybe guardians of public decency have redeeming features.


But then I looked a little deeper and found that he/she/they recently vetoed the vanity plate ‘BONDAGE’ (the ‘B’ in ‘BDSM,’ remember). So bondage is bad but BDSM is good — a thousand times good, even. (Or maybe words are bad and acronyms are good — bureaucracies love acronyms, after all.) I think what it means, though, is that he/she/they doesn’t have a sense of humour — he’s just erratic, inconsistent and capricious.

Oh well, at least I don’t have to revise my opinion of guardians of
public decency. I guess that’s good; change is, after all, hard.