Friday, January 22, 2016


I started this post in 2010. It is now 2016 and I am finally making progress on this book. In the meantime, the book has traveled across the world (and even endured a trip from China with a non-functional entertainment system), yet I failed to get more than a hundred pages into it. Finally as I've used it as a dedicated "commute-book", I am making some progress.

Why the slow progress? (And why do I continue with it?)

It has a great premise. A small town in West Virginia is suddenly zapped into the middle of 1632 Germany. They gradually learn their fate, mingle with the "natives" and use their superior technology to their advantage. They also play a role in some of the historical events of the day (including long chapters on legacy of Gustav II Adolf.)

I picture the author as a bearded old war buff. Turns out from wikipedia that he is a beardless PhD candidate who worked as a union organizer. (That does explain why his new society out of nowhere 'inevitably' forms labor union.)

The story gets interesting in bits and spurts. The writing, however, has much to be desired. At times it can be just plain bad. At times there is way too much detail on individual characters' personal lives. Then, out of nowhere, the society suddenly resolves political and social conflicts to live peaceably together.

There are a lot of characters and it can be difficult to keep them straight. The 17th century characters quickly become "Americanized" and fall in love with Americans. (Hygiene, culinary and other differences just don't seem to be an issue.) The American enclave seems to be able to quickly get all of modern technology working well. They acknowledge that they may eventually lack some things, but seem to get by just fine. (Luckily the stores seemed to have pre-ordered all those hard to find electronics parts well enough in advance.)

The premise of the book is good. The writing has its good points, but those get overwhelmed by the numerous flaws.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Why governments should never be allowed to design webapps

At the end of December, California sent out a letter stating:

"Providing you convenient online services is important to us. Our highest priority is protecting your tax information"
Then they state they will be deactivating existing myFTB account and requiring registration with a new account.

OK, so they are enhancing security. It makes sense. But how do they do it?

Well, they require the annoying security questions that you must chose from. And the answers have to be at least three characters long. (If your second grade teacher happened to be Po, you are out of luck.) And don't you dare change your favorite book, or call your first childhood crush by a nickname. Alas, this idiocy has become common place in the name of "security". (Thus scammers would have to go through the hassle of scanning somebody's facebook profile to break into their account.)

From there, it asks for numeric digits of your address, zip code and tax information. And then it barfs out because it doesn't like something. It doesn't matter that the information matches what California sent, it still doesn't like it. What do you do?

Well, there is a support link. Only, chat is broken and secure email requires you to have an account. And phone? Well, you can try, but typically all circuits are too busy to respond to your call. Great. How about website support? There actually is a simple web form. Yeah! Fill it out, and it complains that special characters are not allowed. What are special characters? In this case, a quotation mark.

Lovely California. Just lovely.

(1/13 update) And to add to the dumbness:
Tried the super secure form again. It requires you to answer all those dumb security questions and enter all this information about yourself. Then only at the end to you play the game of "match the numbers" to see if you could create an account. Why isn't this the first step? If you fail this final step everything done previously is useless. Uggh!

But, if you are unable to register, you can still make payments. However, they don't make this easy either.

They specifically disable copying and pasting in their form fields. You would think it would be more accurate to simply paste account information, right? Nope. Instead, you have to manually type it. The html source identifies the trickery.

 oncopy="return false;" onpaste="return false;" type="text" 

Somebody at Accenture felt really smart didn't they?