What Kind of Camera Do You Have?

I periodically have people ask me what type of camera I have. And I’m never sure how to answer.

Do I go for matter-of-fact? I have a Rebel T1i. But that’s meaningless to people who aren’t camera buffs. (And Canon enthusiasts at that.)

So today, my conversation with the cashier with the Apple Store went something like this:

“You said you like iPhoto? What type of camera do you have?”
“Well, it’s for my mom… I just got her a nice point-and-shoot camera. I use iPhoto with my digital SLR.”
“What brand SLR?”
“I’ve got a Canon.”
“Oh, me too. What kind?”
“The T1i.”

One on hand, it seems terribly roundabout if you compare it to, say, cars:
“What kind of car do you have?”
“I drive an SUV.”
“Oh, cool, what brand SUV?”
“It’s a Toyota.”
“Which model Toyota?”
“It’s a Highlander.”

On the other hand, if you think of it as more of a computer, I couldn’t care less what exact model you have. Even people who follow computers will probably have no idea what your HP Pavilion H123P is like. Is it a 12-year-old laptop or a brand-new 16-core server?

I really can’t answer this question unless I already know what type of camera you have. If you’re holding a Canon SLR, I’ll get specific. If you’re not, I assume you don’t care about exact models, and I’m going to be really vague. But half the time, people were actually interested in specifics, in which case, the conversation is irritatingly roundabout. I can’t get over how often I find myself in this situation, though. Maybe I should just play dumb. “I’m not really sure. It’s black.”

Book Review and Rant

I know that I’ve ranted here before about how I think much of my time spent in school was really a disservice. People who really understood their subject matter had an amazing opportunity to take my blank canvas of a mind, full of imagination and energy, and impart a fascination for arts, science, math, and so much more. Instead, what I got was the conclusion that math was really boring, science was interesting 7% of the time, and history was all about memorizing dates of events that had no relevance to my life or modern society.

Fortunately, the one thing school couldn’t turn me off to was reading. I’m not a big reader, but that’s something I find humiliating. So I was excited to get a few good books for Christmas, and I set into Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. I’m merely a couple chapters into the hefty tome, but I feel comfortable reviewing it already. It’s love at first sight.

I’d like to share a bit of the introduction. Bryson has just finished talking about how a science textbook grabbed his interest as a child, but then seriously let him down when the text accompanying the intriguing illustrations and photos failed to be written in an accessible, interesting, or even comprehensible manner:

It was if [the author] wanted to keep the good stuff secret by making all of it soberly unfathomable. As the years passed, I began to suspect that this was not altogether a private impulse. There seemed to be a mystifying universal conspiracy among textbook authors to make certain the material they dealt with never strayed too near the real of the mildly interesting and was always at least a long-distance phone call from the frankly interesting.

I now know that there is a happy abundance of science writers who pen the most lucid and thrilling prose… but sadly none of them wrote any textbook I ever used. All mine were written by men (it was always men) who held the interesting notion that everything became clear when expressed as a formula and the amusingly deluded belief that the children of America would appreciate having chapters end with a section of questions they could mull over in their own time. So I grew up convinced that science was supremely dull, but suspecting that it needn’t be, and not really thinking about it at all if I could help it.

A book about science written by a person whose opinion of school science classes couldn’t be more closely aligned with my own? It’s interesting to ponder how my life might have been different if teachers in my many years at school had been more adept at imparting just how fascinating the matter could be. Imagine if a science textbook was something I actually read cover to cover because it was an interesting and enjoyable read.

And it also occurs to me that much of what I learned in science wasn’t even right. I tend to imagine all the planets being pretty close by, having a space perhaps the diameter of the Earth in between us and them. It turns out this is incredibly inaccurate:

Such are the distances, in fact, that it isn’t possible, in any practical terms, to draw the solar system to scale. Even if you added lots of fold-out pages to your textbooks or used a really long sheet of poster paper, you wouldn’t come close. On a diagram of the solar system to scale, with Earth reduced to about the diameter of a pea, Jupiter would be over a thousand feet away and Pluto would be a mile and a half distance (and about the size of a bacterium, so you wouldn’t be able to see it anyway.) On the same scale, Proxima Centauri, our nearest star, would be almost ten thousand miles away.

I’ll be sure to share more when I’m done, but so far, I can’t recommend this book highly enough. And if, by chance, you’re a science teacher, you must read this.

Holiday Wishes

Some people object to the phrase “Happy Holidays,” so I did this instead.

wishes = []

# If someone celebrates no holidays, we need to
# make sure we have a blank array and not nil
reader.holidays_celebrated ||= []

# We can't lump these together because some people celebrate more than one holiday.
if reader.holidays_celebrated.include?(Christmas)
wishes << "Merry Christmas"

# It's transliterated a few different ways so try to include several
if reader.holidays_celebrated.include?(Hanukkah) || reader.holidays_celebrated.include?(חנוכה) || reader.holidays_celebrated.include?(Chanukah)
# I think they're already a few weeks in, but whatever
wishes << "Happy Hanukkah"

if reader.holidays_celebrated.include?(Kwanzaa)
wishes << "Happy Kwanzaa"

if reader.holidays_celebrated.include?(Festivus)
wishes << "Happy Festivus (for the rest of us)"

# This goes for everyone, but we want it at the end so the formatting is right
wishes << "Happy New Year"

# The holiday greetings:
<h1><%= wishes.join(' and ') %></h1>

That’s really not ideal. I think I’d probably prefer to iterate over a hashmap with holidays and the greetings, so that the code would be much cleaner.

Small Business Domains

It drives me crazy to see how small businesses advertise themselves.

Consider that you run John Doe Construction. You might get johndoeconstruction.com as a domain. But instead, people are registering terrible domains, like j-dcon.net. Shorter is better in some things, but this is really not one of them. “John Doe Construction dot com” is easy to remember, and if I know you’re John Doe Construction, I don’t even have to remember it, I just have to type it in and throw “.com” on the end.

But random abbreviations get really confusing. j-d for “John Doe” is already a bit confusing, unless your logo happens to be “JD” or something. Your domain name should be the name you use, not some abbreviation you dreamed up when creating a domain. The dash doesn’t help things, and the inconsistent use of dashes is even worse. (“j-d-con.net” would at least be consistent.) Abbreviating “construction” is bad too, especially since there’s no official abbreviation. Is it “cons” or “con” or “const” or what?

And you should really, really get a .com for your business, because everyone assumes a domain, especially a .com, is what you want. Using anything else makes it a bit too likely that people will never find your site.

Oh, and why do you have an @aol.com address for your business’s email? You should have it at your domain, even if it’s just a forwarder. Plus, why is it on the side of your van? I can’t imagine a single person has ever emailed a business after seeing their email on the side of a van.

I think there’s a very big market in setting up websites for small businesses. Get them a domain, host a site, and follow best practices to get it ranked well for their name, especially locally. And coach them on these things, and how to make effective use of their website as a marketing tool.

Making a Living in BS

We’re talking to an SEO consultant. The thing that bugs me is that it’s a legitimate discipline, but filled with a combination of people who give contradictory advice and people who make used car salesman with bad hairdos look like charming people.

It reminds me of something I find fascinating, though: the spread of completely false “advice.” Sometimes it’s just in the form of chain emails, which are always bogus anyway. One that was debunked by Snopes suggested that placing cut onions on plates around your home would help “soak up” swine flu to keep you safe. It turns out that onions do not have a magical ability to attract flu germs, and that placing halved onions on plates around your home does nothing but make you a lunatic with halved onions placed around your home. But those are just lame emails.

What fascinates me is when people who should know better do it. As an example, around Christmas, there’s always a barrage of warnings on the news about how you should be careful with Poinsettias because they’re highly toxic. The problem with spreading this warning is that it turns out they’re not really toxic, though they’re not really edible. People just hear that poinsettias are highly toxic, so they spread the news, despite the fact that they’re a reputable news agency but took no time to look into whether the reports were true or not.

This is how I feel about all of SEO. There’s so much crazy advice. Some contradicts what others say. Some just doesn’t make sense. Some is impossible to prove, since there are too many variables involved and no search engine wants to reveal exactly how it ranks results. A lot of people suggest loading up your meta tags with all sorts of marginally-relevant keywords, for example, even though Google has said it doesn’t even use keywords for ranking, and many people have pointed to anecdotal evidence that keyword-bombing can actually hurt your rankings. There are probably whole books written about “link juice,” and then some experts who say that the whole concept is fallacious.

And then there’s some advice that seems like it might be valid; for example, “fresh” content is ranked more highly. But I have so many questions about that, but since the whole thing is a pseudoscience, no one can answer them. Does this mean adding new pages will help your whole site? Does this mean that a comment on an old blog post will help rank that page more highly? Does this mean that editing copy will help a page stay on top? There’s not much support for this.

And then people just pick up whatever questionable advice they hear and start repeating it. And then they hang out their “SEO Expert” shingle and people assume their nonsense is valid advice.

There are, of course, people who do actually understand SEO, and who aren’t total sleazeballs that just spam links all over the place. But some days I feel like these people amount to an incredibly small minority.

Prices and Lies

I’m always bothered by how people put prices.

For example, I just read the sentence, “Tickets are $20, plus a $1 theater restoration fee.”

Doesn’t that mean that the price is $21, then?

My cell phone bill is another pet peeve. It’s for the amount I signed at, plus taxes, regulatory fees, 911 fees, and more. My cell bill is about $5/month more than the price I was quoted and the price I signed for.

I really wish that stores would advertise the actual price — inclusive of tax. Because, well, the “actual price — inclusive of tax” is the price I have to pay to leave the store with the item, so price tags indicating anything less are deceptive, even if it’s industry-wide practice. It’s not as if I can get the register and say, “Oh, I don’t want the tax with this item” and have it waived*, or that I can call AT&T and opt out of the regulatory fees. If they pass the cost onto consumers, it’s part of the price and needs to be a part of the price that’s advertised.

* Yes, I know tax-exempt agencies can actually do that. But they’re in the (extreme) minority, so the price should be what normal people pay, not what people purchasing for special agencies pay.

Google’s Public DNS Servers

Most of you have probably heard about it by now, but Google decided to offer a public DNS server. While some are suspicious (it is a good way to get some neat information), their reasoning appears to be, “We’re crawling pretty much the whole Internet and thus have looked up records for pretty much everybody, and we have a giant CDN in place, so we could offer really good DNS to everybody…”

The documentation appears to suggest that their goal is to keep just about everything in cache and automatically refresh it when the TTL is met.

It turns out that Verizon, like Comcast, serves up their own site/search engine when you hit a non-existent domain name. This is one of those “not a big deal” things that bugs me more than is rational. So I decided to change my router (which provides internal DNS) to use Google’s instead. It turns out that they chose incredibly easy-to-remember IPs: and


How do I tell a non-tech-savvy person how to take a screenshot? “Press the Print Screen button” is easy, and I can walk them through uploading it. But what about the in-between step of moving it from your hard drive to a file? Is mspaint recommended because it’s installed?

I want these directions for novice computer users, the type who, quite often, really don’t know how to copy-and-paste, so “Use a graphics editor of your choice” is out. They’re often having computer issues, so I don’t want to direct them to download software.

Incidentally, the Mac is the exact opposite of Windows: it’s really hard to figure out how to take a screenshot (Apple-Shift-3?!), but once you do, it’s a piece of cake: it saves a PNG to your desktop. And you can do Apple-Shift-4 to select an area of the screen. If only the two merged, so that you could just press “Print Screen” like on every Windows computer ever made, and have it save an image to your desktop like ever Mac ever made, it would be so incredibly helpful.

SSDs and Asinine Arguments

I tend to get annoyed most of the time people talk about SSDs. There are two main arguments against them:

  • They don’t last long*, and
  • They’re expensive.

On the first point, this is more or less wrong. Everyone sees that they have a finite life and flips out, not realizing that the MBTF is usually several times a conventional hard drive. Someone else argues that this may be so, but that an individual sector can only be written to so often. (Which is the exact same argument that was just refuted?) Except that I’ve never seen an SSD that didn’t have wear-leveling. Furthermore, conventional hard drive get bad sectors, too. I’ve never heard anyone who actually knows what they’re talking about indicate a problem with the reliability of SSDs.

The second point drives me even more crazy. Of course they’re expensive. It’s asinine to even discuss. I can get a 128GB SSD for $300. I have two 2TB disks being shipped to me that, collectively, cost less. But can the 2TB disks do 200MB/sec. reads and have basically-instant seek times? Nope. It’s like trying to compare tractor trailers to Ferraris. It’s asinine to do.