Speed Dial for Chrome

I’ve been using Chrome for a few years now. One thing about Chrome is that they display the eight most visited websites on the front page. That’s nice, but: I’d like more than eight websites, and I’d like to control which websites appear on the list. I finally a chrome-plugin that would let me do that. It’s called Speed Dial, and it’s free, so I’m happy.

(Note: There is one problem I have with Speed Dial though: you can’t remove an existing bookmark from your bookmark list. A workaround is to go into Chrome, go to extensions, turn off Speed Dial, edit your bookmarks, then turn Speed Dial back on.)

Blind Gamer

All I can say to this is wow! I’m shocked that he can play games, and also a little surprised that Abe’s Exoddus contains enough sound clues to allow someone to play it without seeing the screen. I’d have to imagine that games like Super Mario Brothers couldn’t be played like this, since there are moving enemies and a lot of small, moving platforms.

Audio Books, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army

Last summer, I discovered that I could check-out digital audio books from the library without even going to the library. I could just go to the library website, put in my library card information, and get a three-week download of books. It’s pretty cool because it gives me some interesting stuff to listen to while I’m working. I feel like I’m doing double-time: getting paid for work and also learning new stuff. I tend towards political non-fiction. I picked up the Jon Krakauer’s book: “Where Men Win Glory” (The Pat Tillman Story) last fall. A pretty good book.

Now, I just finished Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. It seemed to lean further left than I do, and there were times where I thought, “Does he have a source for that, or is that an assumption?” You can quickly tell from the Amazon ratings that a lot of conservatives didn’t like the liberal-leaning of the book – nearly half of the reviewers gave it a one-star citing “liberal bias”, but based on a lost of short comments, I’m not sure how many read the book. Some interesting information: Contractors (slightly) outnumber US troops in Iraq – which is far higher than in past wars. There were a lot of politicians in the Bush White House who were pushing for “free market” solutions to military operations. Blackwater started out hiring American Special Forces, but it eventually moved into hiring former military from other countries – including hiring Special Forces from Chile who served under Pinochet, and then soldiers from Jordan. While they wanted highly-trained soldiers, they were also chasing the lowest-cost workers. Like it does in the manufacturing industry, this naturally leads towards hiring people from the third-world, some of whom might have some pretty spotty human-rights records.

Blackwater tried different tactics to operate outside the law – saying that they were civilians, and therefore, not subject to military law or the Geneva Conventions, but then saying that the US military had no authority over them since they weren’t US military so they should be treated similar to civilians. I’m generally uncomfortable with the idea of training foreign soldiers who might be fighting against us in the future or training people who fighting against us. Afterall, it’s not like Chilean soldiers or Jordanian soldiers are going to have some allegiance to not harming the US. It wouldn’t surprise me if Blackwater would hire Chinese soldiers. Afterall, if it earns them extra profits, why not? That would have the effect of training soldiers from the US’ biggest rival in the 21st century, who would no doubt, return home and teach other Chinese soldiers. Given that Blackwater is committed to having the best training available to their employees, this seems like a bad mixture.

There’s also the issue of driving up the costs for US military operations. For example, US soldiers started getting jealous of how much Blackwater soldiers were getting paid, so there was always an incentive to leave the military, join Blackwater, and get hired working for the US for more money (plus Blackwater would be taking their cut). This has the effect of making each man cost more money to the US taxpayer. I couldn’t help but think that private military contracts can act as a kind of collective-bargaining system (which has the effect of being more capable of wringing more money from the US government), whereas under the normal military-hiring system, the US government is dealing with individuals.

One of the other major issues I have with “free market solutions” to military operations is that, in order to get companies to behave like you want them to behave, you need to have the company’s interests and goals aligned with the military’s goals and interests. For example, if Blackwater has a contract to protect a US General, then there may be situations where Blackwater might treat civilians badly (for example, racing through the streets, shooting up cars that come too close, acting arrogantly, etc). While those actions might have the result of protecting “their man”, it might also increase resentment in the civilian population, which could worsen the whole situation. (In fact, there have been cases where Blackwater contractors fired on civilian cars.) The costs of that civilian dissatisfaction could cause unrest which falls disproportionately on the US military, not on Blackwater. Thus, a company could, in the act of doing their job as cheaply and efficiently as possible, create a whole bunch of external costs that fall on the US military. Since those costs fall on someone else, military contractors might be dismissive about the problems they’re stirring up. Theoretically, Blackwater could even benefit from unrest (that they themselves helped create) since it could lead to increased military spending. And, let’s not even get into the issues that would crop up if Blackwater had lobbyists – who would naturally agitate for war. I could imagine them going and finding dissidents telling made-up stories that justify going to war. Based on the book, Blackwater donated lots of money to politicians’ campaigns and had extensive connections with some of the highest-level people in politics, which is scary from the standpoint of the influence they might have.

I made it about 80-90% of the way through the audio book before deciding the rest of the book was talking about stuff that bored me. Overall, I’d give it a three or three-and-a-half stars. Not great, not terrible, sometimes interesting, sometimes boring.

Now, I’ve started “America’s Secret War: Inside the Hidden Worldwide Struggle Between America and Its Enemies”.

Done with Thunderbird

After moving over to my new laptop, I had to move over Thunderbird (the open-source email application created by Mozilla, the same group that created Firefox). I had a whole system in place to copy over my email, since I’ve reformatted or bought new hard drives for my computer in the past. For some reason, I just couldn’t get it up and running on Windows 7. After trying for an hour, including looking for instructions on how to do it, I eventually decided all the instructions were out-dated and didn’t work. I don’t know if this is because I’m using Windows 7, or if Mozilla changed something in the application itself.

So, I decided to just move everything over to gmail and access my accounts with gmail’s pop3 access. It was a much easier system to get up and running. Plus, I won’t have to worry about backing up my email, or figure out how to get the email up and running whenever I change computers or hard drives.

I’ve generally had a contentious relationship with open-source software, and it seems like this is one more example of the problems I’ve had with it. Admittedly, I still use Firefox, Open Office, and NSIS, although, now that I think about it, all of them were commercial applications they fell into open-source. I wonder if there’s a correlation there.

New Laptop

I bought a new laptop last week. My old laptop has felt slow for quite a while, but I haven’t wanted to spend the money on buying a new one. My original plan back in 2009 was to buy a new laptop when the game started selling, but I once I started to see sales numbers, I could see that things were tight.

The test I’ve been doing with my new laptops is to see how fast they can recompile the source code. When I last upgraded my laptop, I got a 3x improvement in compile times. The new laptop brought a 31 minute compile down to 14 minutes. In those terms, it’s 2.3x as fast as my previous laptop. I have to say, it’s been 4.5 years since I bought my previous laptop, and I was hoping for a better time than that. It’s not bad, but it seems like there’s been a decline in the rate of improvement of computers. Moore’s Law is that the number of transistors double every 18 months, which is widely (and not so accurately) interpreted as doubling the speed of a computer every 18 months. It’s been three 18-month cycles since my last laptop purchase, and this certainly isn’t 2^3 times faster (which would be 8 times faster). Although, it certainly seems more than 2.3x faster in most other tasks. According to notebook check, this laptop is 2.9x – 3.8x faster in their benchmarks than my previous one.

Wikipedia Donations Graphic

I thought this was a pretty interesting graphic. Wikipedia tried a variety of campaigns to get people to donate money. Here’s the graphic put together by InformationIsBeautiful:

Out of curiosity, I decided to run some additional numbers. If Wikipedia is getting $47,433 per day with that ad, and we assume that they continued to earn that much each day indefinitely (which is questionable), then they’d earn $17.3 million per year. In contrast, the Encyclopedia Britannica earned $650 million in 1990 (their peak year). There are some other differences (like the fact that some people might’ve felt that their contribution to Wikipedia was to fix and refine articles, and the fact that Britannica had printing costs), but I also can’t help but think that it says something about the donation model.

(By the way, I also think that having a free publicly available encyclopedia for everyone is a kind of social good, so I’m not arguing that they should charge subscription fees in order to earn a lot more money. Just thinking about the donation model in general.)

Craigslist Scam

A friend of mine got caught up in a craigslist scam recently. I’ve heard of a number of craigslist scams, and feel like I have a good idea on warning signs, but this one was new to me.

My friend contacted someone about buying some furniture. The woman told her that the furniture was still available for sale. A little while later, the same woman contacted her again and said that someone else sent her an email about buying the furniture, but it went to her spam mail folder. She wanted to sell it to the first person since they replied to the ad first. But, the woman explained, she wanted to make it up to my friend. She worked at a dental office and a company was giving them teeth whitening samples for cheap – something like $4, which was 90% off the regular price. My friend could go to a website, punch in a special code and get the same 90% discount that their dental office workers are getting. So, my friend figured “why not?” She went out to the website, punched in the code and ordered them. A $4 charge showed up on her credit card. Then, a little while later, another $1.50 charge. My friend thought that was odd, but didn’t worry too much about it. Then, her bank contacted her because they had tried to withdraw hundreds of dollars out of her account, but the bank had put a hold on the transaction. My friend went back to the website, but it was gone.

Fortunately, it doesn’t sound like my friend lost any money, but her money was tied-up for a few days while the bank put a hold on it. (I don’t actually know why the bank wouldn’t let her access it. Maybe they were unsure of the status of the transaction.) The $1.50 charge was a test to see if they could pull more money from the account after the initial $4.

Google Knows All

I was just at the coffeeshop, and about fifteen to twenty people came in for a meeting. I could sort of hear what they were talking about. Thought I’d check out what the group was, so I typed in the coffeeshop name, today’s date, and “meetup”. The first google result told me what their group was and linked to their website. It seems slightly creepy that I could quickly come up with so much information so quickly. Twenty years ago, this would’ve seemed unimaginable.

Hard Drive Blues

Blue screen of boredom

I had more hard drive problems this week. This time, I was having problems with files getting corrupted. I ended up spending all day yesterday reinstalling windows and my applications on a new hard drive. It takes forever to get things up and running again, mostly because of slow installs and slow updates. So, I got zero “actual work” done. At least I’m being a little smarter about things now: I’m redesigning my backup system, and I cloned my hard drive after reinstalling everything. Now that I have a clone, it will only take me about 30 minutes to get everything up and running again on a new hard drive.