Your Cranky Sysadmin Speaks

I am occasionally still in the "user support" game. When a user is experiencing a problem, it helps to get details. Specifically, instead of "it doesn't work", an accurate transcription of an error message is nearly always more helpful in figuring out the problem.

You will probably not be too surprised to learn that such detail can be tough to get.

I was a little put out when, instead of just typing in the error message, people started sending me screenshots. What, you can't just type in what it says, perhaps 50 characters or so? Instead you have to send me a hundreds-of-kilobytes graphics file?

But I learned to deal with it. At least it avoids transcription errors.

But today I got a three megabyte file; instead of using screenshot software, our user took a picture of his screen. Sigh.

I suppose the day is coming when users start mailing me narrated videos of their woes. Can't wait!

The Phony Campaign

2015-10-25 Update

Yet another shakeup in our phony lineup this week. Joe Biden took himself out of the running, and this allowed Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee to sneak above our arbitrary 2% probability threshold, according to PredictWise. This is Huckabee's first appearance since August 9.

Query String Hit Count Change Since
"Jeb Bush" phony 1,090,000 -2,100,000
"Hillary Clinton" phony 536,000 -1,924,000
"Donald Trump" phony 407,000 -1,563,000
"Bernie Sanders" phony 235,000 -63,000
"Ted Cruz" phony 154,000 -36,000
"Ben Carson" phony 151,000 -17,000
"Marco Rubio" phony 124,000 -10,000
"Chris Christie" phony 110,000 ---
"Mike Huckabee" phony 76,100 ---

The week in phoniness.

  • Did the Benghazi hearings confirm yet again what a brazen liar Hillary is? Find out the answer to that question in Jonah Goldberg's G-File, headlined "The Benghazi Hearings Confirm Yet Again What a Brazen Liar Hillary Is".

    Not shocking news. (Jonah: "Of course, this wasn’t actually a revelation any more than testimony from the Secretary of the Interior that, after extensive study, he can confirm that bears do, in fact s*** in the woods.")

    Also non-shocking (but depressing): the mainstream media's unwillingness to make Hillary's serial mendacity clear to their readers/viewers. Jonah's summary: "Protect the Hive Queen!". He links to Noah Rothman's summary of media coverage at Commentary. His conclusion:

    The Benghazi Committee is owed a public debt if only because it has exposed the decay in Washington’s culture of wagon-circling. Pundits who forever lament America’s sense of alienation from the political class and their growing cynicism towards elected elites appear not to notice when they are exacerbating that condition. While news media and Democrats are praising Clinton’s performance, Americans are waking up to the notion that they might have been deliberately misled about the deaths of their fellow citizens in a terror attack and likely for petty political gain. There is something rotten here.


  • Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker mulls on Jeb's campaign woes:

    Jeb has presented himself as the most electable Republican candidate: willing to break with Republican orthodoxy on domestic issues such as immigration and education, and committed to breaking, if vaguely, with his brother’s legacy on foreign policy and to being, as he has said, his “own man.” Before Bush officially entered the 2016 campaign, he remarked to a group of C.E.O.s at a conference in Washington, D.C., that a successful candidate had to be willing to “lose the primary to win the general,” and should campaign “without violating your principles.” He meant that one must avoid the perennial trap of party primaries, in which “base voters,” the hard-core conservatives, force politicians to take extreme positions that will prove unpopular in a general election and, when later disavowed, expose the candidate as a phony. “It’s not an easy task, to be honest with you,” he noted. (Hillary Clinton faces a similar problem in her race for the Democratic nomination.)

    Interesting strategy, Jeb: don't be exposed as a phony. How's that working out for you?

  • Politico's Seung Min Kim notes the tightrope walk by Marco Rubio on immigration: he once favored the infamous "Gang of Eight" immigration approach, now not so much.

    “He’s saying to donors and to Latinos that I’m still for a path to citizenship, I’m still for immigration reform. But I’ve learned the hard way” regarding a comprehensive bill, Sharry said. “It’s very clever. It sounds reasonable. But for people who actually know what it takes to pass legislation, especially immigration reform legislation, it’s so hollow. It has all the substance of Cheetos.”

    Snarky comment: those people "who actually know what it takes to pass legislation" didn't actually pass legislation.

    Once you discount the article's obvious bias, it appears that Rubio has actually shifted his position, but doesn't want to pay the price with pro-"comprehensive" reformers. And the hunk of the electorate that might agree with his current enforcement-first-then-we'll-talk stance don't really view his conversion as genuine. It's tough out there for a phony.

Bad Monkey

[Amazon Link]

I came a little late to Carl Hiaasen fandom, but since then I've been a loyal reader. I just no longer buy the hardcovers on publication day. In fact, I picked this up from our local Barnes&Noble remainder display and saved a couple bucks over both paperback and Kindle editions.

Things kick off when a tourist on a fishing expedition off the Florida coast reels in a grisly discovery: a human arm, middle finger outstretched. Local law enforcement treats it like a hot potato: nobody wants to deal with this obvious unfortunate accident. Disgraced ex-cop Andrew Yates is tasked with passing off the arm to someone, anyone, who'll take it off his hands.

Andrew is your typical flawed Hiaasen hero: honest, but quick-tempered with poor impulse control. He's been demoted to restaurant-inspection duty because—see if you can follow this—the husband of the woman Andrew had been involved insulted her honor, and Andrew sodomized him with a vacuum cleaner in front of a few hundred witnesses.

Anyway, Andrew sees the arm as a possible tool to get his job back. (Restaurant inspection is a dreadful, disgusting job as paragraphs of Hiaasenian prose make clear.) Identifying the person to which the arm used to be attached is pretty easy. The widow, however, is suspiciously non-grieving. Then people start dying. Of course, not all is as it seems.

Oh yeah: there's a monkey. And he's not well-behaved. It turns out that show-biz (Pirates of the Caribbean, specifically) can burn out animals the same way it does humans.

Not a bad read, but I found myself bemused at the pacing. There's a big climactic showdown/rescue/revelation … and then the book goes on for eighty more pages.

The Phony Campaign

2015-10-18 Update

Our leader board gets shaken up a bit this week. Both Carly Fiorina and Chris Christie have dropped below our 2% PredictWise inclusion threshold, and Ted Cruz has moved his five-foot-eight frame in to take their place. This is the first time Ted has broken 2% since we've been paying attention. So:

Query String Hit Count Change Since
"Jeb Bush" phony 3,190,000 +2,080,000
"Hillary Clinton" phony 2,460,000 +1,926,000
"Donald Trump" phony 1,970,000 +1,525,000
"Bernie Sanders" phony 298,000 +120,000
"Joe Biden" phony 203,000 -3,000
"Ted Cruz" phony 190,000 ---
"Ben Carson" phony 168,000 -61,000
"Marco Rubio" phony 134,000 +1,000

  • Let's welcome Ted by pointing out that—whoa—a lot of web-writers out there really, really, really despise him. Just click his link up there and peruse the first few Googled results. For example, Lynn Stuart Parramore of Alternet writing (a couple of years ago): "Ted Cruz Is a Big Phony and A Giant Narcissist".

    And a huge poopyhead too, amirite Lynn?

    Ted Cruz, the Tea Party darling, fake-filibustered his way into headlines recently with a 21-hour anti-Obamacare verbal rampage that simultaneously made his party look stupid and accomplished nothing. It did, however, spread images of his smarmy mug across televisions and newspapers around the country, which is the outcome Cruz most ardently hoped for.

    Lynn gets high marks for invective, insult, and innuendo. Matt K. Lewis (as you might expect) offers a more balanced picture: The Obama-like rhetoric, record, and divisiveness of Ted Cruz:

    Lots of people think Ted Cruz is a phony. Others are just as sure that he's among the most genuine politicians in America. He's not all that different from President Obama that way.

    Lewis argues that Cruz sees himself as (in Obama's words) "fundamentally transforming the United States of America." Except in a good way.

    Personally, I would prefer a candidate who would make the same pledge as Rick Perry made four years back: "I’ll work every day to try to make Washington, DC, as inconsequential in your life as I can."

  • At Reason, Nick Gillespie asks and answers the query troubling everyone many some maybe two or three people: "Just How Bad Would Joe Biden Be as President? Really F*cking Bad." (Asterisk in original.) Sample:

    For virtually his entire career, Biden has been a joke and a punchline, known not simply for dada-esque gaffes but also for cheating while in law school and, inexplicably, plagiarizing biographical details from a British politician during a disastrous White House run in 1988. Then there's the weird stuff during swearing-in ceremonies.

    But would Joe be be worse than Hillary? That's a tough call, right?

  • Hillary tried hard this week to disguise the motives for her recent flip-flop on the TPP trade deal as somehow something different than sheer political expediency. This involved her claiming she had perused the current state of the deal when she almost certainly had not. Fallout: an amusing exchange with White House Pressdroid, Josh Earnest:

    Q Josh, thanks. I want to ask you about Secretary Clinton and TPP. It’s interesting to me, because I remember back when we were talking earlier this year about GOP lawmakers who hadn’t seen the Iran deal, for example, and you were understandably very critical of them for being against something before they’d actually even seen it, they hadn’t even read it. And now we have Secretary Clinton who presumably also has not seen the final draft of the TPP and yet she’s against it, too. And I’m just curious if you feel like criticism is warranted because she is essentially doing what a lot of GOP lawmakers were doing earlier this year. You haven’t seen it, you haven’t read it, and you’re coming out against it. Seems phony, doesn’t it?

    MR. EARNEST: Well, I don’t think that I’ve minced any words in noting that we have a disagreement on this issue. But for the reasons that she has arrived at this position, I’d refer you to her campaign.

    In other words (actually in one other word): "Yes".

  • Actor Frank Ridley has a gig with, one of the seemingly endless groups looking to "end corruption". Ridley plays the role of "Honest Gil Fulbright", a straightforward pol who will tell you to your face that he's looking to screw ordinary people over to cater to "special interests." Honest Gil showed up at the Republican Liberty Caucus meeting in Nashua NH last weekend; here's his speech:

    Did you stay through the whole thing? Yeah, I didn't either. A bit obvious and heavy-handed.

    But here's the funny thing: phony candidate Honest Gil beat actual candidate Jeb Bush in the RLC straw poll, getting 1.5% to Jeb's 1.2%.

Last Modified 2015-10-18 10:52 AM EDT

The New School

[Amazon Link]

I noticed that the Dimond Library at the University Near Here owned this slim volume from Glenn Harlan Reynolds, aka Instapundit. I very much enjoyed his book An Army of Davids way back in 2006. It's not often you get a chance to read Glenn in a format longer than his typical blog post.

The book, short as it is, adapts two previous works: one on the higher education crisis, the other on K-12 problems. In both cases, there is a theme of unsustainability, and not the mushy kind that environmentalists prattle about. Glenn's favorite saying is (Herbert) Stein's Law: "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop."

There are any number of trends in the US education "system" that can't go on forever. At the college level, costs keep increasing, along with the debts incurred by victims students. Yet the outcomes remain mediocre, with graduates moving on to unemployment and underemployment. (The problem is especially bad in law schools, apparently: they produce far more graduates than the market can bear.)

At the K-12 level, things are similar: ever-increasing costs, never-improving actual education. The stranglehold of government on schooling at this level is greater, and (hence) the problems are less tractable. Still: Stein's Law. It's hard to see how things can continue this way.

So, what's predicted for the "new" school? Glenn's outlook is kind of hazy. It would be nice if we got away from the Procrustean ideal: one size fits all, all students moving through the same curriculum in the same time in the same way. To a certain extent, technology offers a (partial) way out: cheap courses that can be taken on your own schedule. If one course (say) in Python programming doesn't fit your learning style, you can move on to a different one.

Glenn is an engaging writer, but the book doesn't offer much in the way of new observations. At least for insights about the future of college education, I'd recommend Kevin Carey's The End of College instead.

Last Modified 2015-10-14 5:27 AM EDT

Happy Columbus Day

AKA, no mail, but I have to go to work anyway. Here is your tweet du jour:

Last Modified 2019-01-08 2:18 PM EDT

The Phony Campaign

2015-10-11 Update

Pun Salad took a small hiatus to check out Nashville, Tennessee last week, but we're back again, and plenty of phoniness has gone on in the interim. There are no changes to our PredictWise-based lineup. Carly Fiorina proved to be a one-week wonder at the top of the phony charts; Jeb resumes his usual position in first, with Hillary nipping at his heels:

Query String Hit Count Change Since
"Jeb Bush" phony 1,110,000 +10,000
"Hillary Clinton" phony 534,000 +52,000
"Carly Fiorina" phony 511,000 -1,959,000
"Donald Trump" phony 445,000 +78,000
"Ben Carson" phony 229,000 +121,000
"Joe Biden" phony 206,000 +53,000
"Bernie Sanders" phony 178,000 +32,000
"Marco Rubio" phony 133,000 +2,000
"Chris Christie" phony 117,000 +1,000

Note: today's image is just one of the many results gettyimages returns when searching for "distrust". Something about it appealed to me… but I can't put my finger on it.

  • Phoniness is a perennial pundit topic; when you can't think of anything to write about, and a deadline approacheth, you can always write about authenticity at least once every campaign season. NYT writer (and Dartmouth prof) Brendan Nyhan grabbed that life preserver a few days ago: "Hillary Clinton’s Authenticity Problem, and Ours" Is Hillary really all that phony?

    In reality, all politicians are strategic about the image and behaviors they present to voters. Some just hide the artifice better than others.

    Prof Nyhan's article contains no points we haven't seen (and linked to) before, but it's link-filled as befits his even-handed academic take. He glosses over the particular manifestation of Hillary's phoniness: she does a very poor job of masking her lust for political power.

  • Another professor, Greg Mankiw of Harvard, illustrates our thesis with a concrete example: Hillary's recent flipflop on the TPP trade deal: for it before she was against it. Prof Mankiw notes that most economists favor freer trade, and a lot of them have come out in favor of TPP. But a lot of economists (especally in academia) are also Democrats. The obvious question:

    So, will those economists who like Clinton start to turn against her? I doubt it. My guess is that most of them don't believe what she is now saying. They expect that once she moves back into the White House, she will return to the moderate view of trade deals that her husband championed. In other words, they are counting on her being untrustworthy. If they had reason to doubt her mendacity, then they would start to worry.

    Possible new slogan for the paraphernalia on sale Hillary store: "Trust her, she's lying."

  • Jonah Goldberg's column is similar in theme and tactfully headlined: "Flip-Flops Show Hillary’s Long on Ambition, Short on Principles". I would have gone with the first-paragraph zinger: "little more than political ambition wrapped in a pantsuit." Jonah reminds us that TPP is just the latest:

    In fact, finding evidence that Clinton operates this way is like looking for evidence that fire is hot. In 2008, when it was in her interest, Clinton was against federal “blanket rules” on guns; now she’s making extra-constitutional gun-grabbing the centerpiece of her campaign (at least this week, while a recent mass murder is still fresh in our memories). She long opposed same-sex marriage on principle, until the times required a new position. She initially thought the undercover videos of Planned Parenthood were “disturbing.” But within 48 hours, she was a stalwart defender of Planned Parenthood. As more — and more disturbing — videos emerged, she grew more adamant that the outrage wasn’t the fetal organ harvesting, but the videos exposing them.

    … and that's just the start.

  • Fox news personality Greta Van Susteren offers: "Free debate advice for Secretary Hillary Clinton: don’t be a phony". Strikes us as advising water not to be wet, (as Jonah notes) fire not to be so hot, or uranium nuclei to try to get along with fewer protons. But:

    “Tell us your views without careful hairsplitting to avoid taking on President Obama where you disagree or where you might disagree with certain segments of your party. In other words, blunt, straight talk – whatever it may be.”

    Can you imagine what that would sound like? If she were restricted to "blunt, straight talk" revealing her inner thoughts and core values, ungilded, unframed? Here's my take:

    "I want to be president."

    I think that's about all she could say. Over and over, until her time was up.

  • Thomas Sowell has—count 'em—a one, two, three part set of columns written around the theme of "Charlatans and Sheep". Although none of our current candidates are mentioned, this is worth keeping in mind anyway:

    One of the secrets of successful magicians on stage is directing the audience's attention to something that is attractive or distracting, but irrelevant to what is actually being done. That is also the secret of successful political charlatans.

    Consider the message directed at business owners by Senator Elizabeth Warren and President Barack Obama -- "You didn't build that!"

    Assuming for the sake of argument that a man who owns a business simply inherited it from his father, what follows? That politicians can use the inherited resources better than the heir? Such a sweeping assumption has neither logic nor evidence behind it -- but rhetoric doesn't have to have logic or evidence to be politically effective.

    OK, those are the charlatans. The sheep? Those who are gullible enough to buy the spiel. I.e., way too many of today's voters.

The Martian

[5.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

I was in Nashville, Mrs. Salad was off to her meeting, and I was unenthusiastic about going to yet another money-sucking tourist trap. Nashville, bless its pecuniary heart, doesn't seem to have a lot of free stuff to do. Even its replica of the Parthenon will set you back $6. So I went to the movies. Only slightly more expensive than the Parthenon, even when you splurge, as I did, on 3-D.

The plot is simplicity itself: a Martian exploratory mission finds its survival threatened by a surprise sandstorm which threatens to tip over the rocket they plan to use to get off the planet. So they need to leave in a hurry. But the storm rips off their communication antenna, which careens into hapless botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon), carrying them both off into parts unknown. The remaining crew decide that Watney is certainly dead, and take off.

Why did they take a botanist to Mars anyway? The book's in my TBR pile, so maybe that's explained there.

But (guess what?) Watney's not dead. But it appears he might as well be: his supplies will run out long before there's any hope of a rescue mission from Earth. His only hope, as he puts it: "I'm gonna have to science the shit out of this."

What follows is a tour de force of scientific resourcefulness, sacrifice, and bravery. Adding to Watney's efforts, the bureaucratic/scientific maneuverings at NASA/JPL and the returning crew's ship are portrayed, far more interestingly than I would have thought possible. (And it's genuinely funny in a number of spots.)

All in all, thoroughly enjoyable. Matt Damon probably couldn't even cook a potato in real life, but he (sorry) acts the shit out of this role. (Everybody else is fine too, but no question: this is Damon's movie.) The movie is also amazingly realistic: I know (slightly) better, but I can see how some people thought it was (a) based on a true story and/or (b) shot on location.

I'm not sure it's worth seeing in 3-D though.

Last Modified 2016-01-06 5:56 AM EDT

The Fifth Witness

[Amazon Link]

Another Kindlized Michael Connelly book read during the ordeal that is modern air travel. (It was $2.99 when I got it at Amazon a few years back, a deal that is no longer available.)

Defense lawyer Mickey Haller has fallen on tough times. Prosecutors have become much more successful at avoiding expensive criminal trials, his usual bread and butter. So he has altered his professional course, shifting into defending underwater homeowners against foreclosure on their homes. It's the Little Guy™ against greedy, sleazy banks! Never mind that Haller bills almost as much money from his clients than they owe their creditors!

But one of Haller's clients, Lisa Trammel, is accused of the grisly murder of a executive of the bank holding her mortgage. Mickey immediately shifts back to criminal defense mode; in addition, he gets Lisa to assign him representational rights to whatever eventual TV movies or best selling books are produced by this lurid ripped-from-the-headlines case. (Mickey is all about getting paid, and he's very unsentimental about it.)

Lisa is dreadful: self-promotional, self-regarding, self-dramatic and generally whiny. But did she do the deed? Mickey keeps telling himself and his co-workers that it doesn't matter: he just has to find a credible alternate hypothesis of the crime to instill a reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors.

It's another fine page-turner (or Kindle button-pusher) from Mr. Connelly. The outcome of the case causes Mickey to make a life-changing decision at the end. Will it work out? I guess we'll see in the next book!

The Reversal

[Amazon Link]

I picked up the Kindle version of this book a couple years back for the sweet price of $2.99, but it languished in my cybernetic to-be-read pile. It turned out to be ideal reading on my recent trip to Nashville. (The Kindle is a godsend to easily-bored travellers.)

A heinous murder committed a quarter-century ago put Jason Jessup in the slammer. But modern technology allows DNA analysis of evidence from back then, and—oops!—it tends to exonerate Jessup. Instead of letting Jessup go free, the state decides to go for a new trial. And they manage to wangle defense lawyer Mickey Haller over to their side to lead the prosecution.

In a welcome development, Mickey demands the state provide an investigator of his choice: half-brother Harry Bosch. (This is nearly a 50/50 Bosch/Haller book, a gimmick that worked for me. FBI profiler Rachel Walling also makes a significant appearance.)

The case has plenty of dramatic twists and mysteries. But there is never any doubt that the Bosch/Haller combination will eventually reveal the actual murderer.


[Amazon Link]

Apparently the antepenultimate entry in Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone series. Assuming I'm not forgetting how the alphabet works and haven't missed some announcement from Ms. Grafton about her post-Z plans.

And the title is, simply, X, not X is for Xenophobia or X is for Xanthan Gum. That would have been silly. But "X" does crop up in a couple places here.

Kinsey is multitasking: (a) an (apparently) wealthy woman hires her to track down a son given up for adoption long ago, who turned to a life of safecracking and bank jobs, and has been recently released from prison; (b) the widow of a shady private eye (bumped off in the previous book) has asked Kinsey to search his leftover files to help with an IRS audit, but Kinsey discovers some mysterious memorabilia and an encrypted document; (c) Kinsey's landlord, Henry, gets concerned with water conservation during a California drought, and new neighbors move in next door—Henry's his usual friendly self to them, but something about them raises Kinsey's suspicions.

After 23 entries in the series, I am by now used to Ms. Grafton's quirks. Most notable is the extreme prose-padding; Kinsey's first-person narration is full of irrelevant detail. (Example: she reports feeding a Wilshire Boulevard parking meter four quarters, two dimes, and a nickel for 15 minutes of time.) I suspect—I've probably said this before—that Ms. Grafton's publishing contract called for at least a 400-page manuscript, and she just adds stuff here and there until it meets requirements.

Not that this is a big deal, I love Kinsey despite her wordiness. Can't wait to see what happens in Y and Z.