The “Pinky proposal”

So here’s the thing. Everybody’s gaga about security these days. And biometrics are big because, hey, you always carry them around. At work, we already scan our fingerprint instead of punching cards, and it’s saved a ton of time for everyone.

However, the problem arises when you talk about a high-security setting. Because, everyone fears, what if someone, just to get your access, cuts off your finger? that would be much worse than having your keycard stolen, wouldn’t it? the prospect of losing a thumb or (in some cases) an index finger is scary to most people.

So here’s the proposal: let’s use our pinkies instead. I know losing a pinky would be just as painful but bear with me for a second. The loss of a pinky will impair you a lot less than losing an index finger or thumb. So while painful, it will let you get on with your life a lot better. Imagine not being able to grab anything, or to point at things. Look at your hands when you’re typing; I bet you barely use your pinkies anyway. You’re supposed to lift them when you eat or drink, so again, you’re not using them. So I think they’re a good choice when you absolutely must lose a finger.

So there; particularly if you live in a violent country where people wouldn’t think twice about mutilating you just to get in that high-security facility you work at, be sensible and ask your HR staff to scan your pinky instead of your thumb. Might save you a lot of grief.

Mexico’s secretary of the interior dies in plane accident

Photo (c) La Jornada, 2008
Photo (c) La Jornada, 2008

Or, was it an accident? There’s plenty of speculation about the plane crash that cost Juan Camilo Mouriño, Mexico’s secretary of the interior (Secretario de Gobernación) and (so far) 12 other people their lives. Theories ranging from a simple accident to a narco-fueled vendetta abound.

But the fact is that the tragedy should be looked at from a humanitarian point of view. 13 dead and over 40 injured, 3 of which might also die in the next few days. It’s a time for mourning, yes, but for us to mourn for all the people who died, not just mr. Mouriño; a time for the entire mexican society to give their support to the families of the deceased, just as we would in any other tragedy.

Let me be cold-hearted for a while and state this: Mouriño’s death will not have a great impact for Mexico or even for president Felipe Calderón’s team, his plans or aspirations. Because for all the power his position brought, Mouriño himself was a rather grey politician. So yes, let the president give speeches about how we lost a “great mexican” (he was born in Spain so even that is debatable). But the truth is, Mouriño will get replaced by someone else, with similar political prowess, capabilities, aspirations and a similar position to further Calderón’s plans, whatever they are. And in the public eye, Mouriño will fade and then disappear, to become a footnote like Ramón Martín Huerta (whose name, incidentally, has resurfaced in connection with the Mouriño tragedy).

He will disappear, that is, in the eyes of everybody but his family and friends: these people didn’t just witness the death of a high-ranking government officer; they lost a friend, a father, a husband, and a son. To them, and to all the relatives of the deceased, the tragedy has a very personal feel. This is the level at which us normal people can empathize and understand the magnitude of what happened, for any loss of human life is to be regretted. So indeed, let our prayers (for those who pray) and our condolences and best wishes be with mr. Mouriño’s family, as well as with those of all the others who lost their lives or were injured in the tragedy.

Peseros in Mexico City, the spawn from hell

Peseros in Mexico City are a fact of life; indeed, due to several mishandlings of transport policy (yes, the government again), they have thrived and carry up to 60% of the city’s passengers. Yet, as everybody knows, they’re unsafe, dangerous, rude and cause endless traffic jams and problems.

Watching two of these behemoths racing down an avenue, in a contest to win god knows what (but usually more passengers, never mind that the poor schmucks already on board are risking their lives), is a sight to behold and a prime example of just how out of control the situation is.

Pesero accidents are quite common, but sometimes they take a turn for the tragic. And strangely, high-profile accidents are the ones that bring the neglect and impunity of the Pesero problem into light.

On October 29th, 2008, a pesero was driving too fast, then rolled over. The tragic result: 15 injured, 2 dead. The two casualties were crushed by the (precarious and strength-lacking) roof and side metal as the vehicle flipped over and ended upside down. The entire scene was gruesome.

People were shocked; the driver escaped. Authorities reacted by launching a massive manhunt for the driver, opening legal procedures against the unit’s owner who is considered an accomplice, as well as cancelling the Pesero’s concession. This is a first, never before has this been done in response to an accident of any kind involving a pesero. So everyone is happy about what happened, right?

Think about this for a minute. Pesero accidents are a dime a dozen. The driver is most often responsible; the owners just ignore the fact and protect themselves with lawyers and amparos (a legal procedure to harbour yourself against government action). People have died before in pesero accidents, as pedestrians run over by Peseros, car drivers or passengers hit by out-of-control units, or everyday passengers.

So why is this the first time one of these negligent criminals has had his concession suspended? While the driver is mostly responsible, it’s the vehicle owner’s responsibility as much as the driver’s. So indeed, any owner whose unit is involved in an accident should have the concession revoked. It doesn’t matter if it was the driver’s fault (why do they hire 18-year-olds with no experience and entrust them with the lives of up to 50 passeners?), or a technical failure (most of the units are in sad conditions, falling apart, and lack even the most basic security measures)  or a simple traffic accident (pesero drivers are known for purposely hitting other cars when they feel like it, because their units barely suffer any damage). It’s their responsibility to provide quality service with safe, courteous drivers in up-to-spec units and upholding all traffic regulations; if all, they should be even more cautious than other vehicles.

This of course is never going to happen; the accident will help to make an example and then things will go back to normal. Few people will remember this the next time a fatal accident is caused by a Pesero. Hopefully this article will help change that, so that eventually, Peseros can be replaced by something better. But it won’t happen unless authorities change their policies regarding this problem.

Reasons to leave Mexico #2

Imagine working at Mexico’s most prestigious educational institution; indeed, Latin America’s top university. Here you are, pounding away in your cubicle, when suddenly you hear the distant ramble of a disturbance. Curious, you get out of your seat and go outside, just in time to see a mob of rabid young men, most carrying sticks or rocks, many lighting home-made, high-powered firecrackers whose explosions rattle windows and startle quiet, harmless professors and students, swarming through the parking lot, damaging and jumping on cars. They go on their way to the stadium, not before causing huge damage to cars and the university’s property. But more importantly, they damage the community’s faith and sense of safety. Even here, within the generous shelter of UNAM’s walls, you are not safe. So, as is usual in Mexico, you give thanks that the most that happened was that YOUR car got this beautiful scratch. Hey, you should be glad that’s ALL that happened to you.

I’ve never actually understood “porros”, groups of psudo-students who act as hitmen to terrorize and further political intentions. Whose political intentions? I have no idea. All we know is that they gather in huge numbers and, sheltered in the mob they form, they perform all sorts of mindless vandalism. In this case, with the excuse of a traditional football game (Poli vs. UNAM), they came to campus for the “burning of the donkey” (Poli’s mascot), and in their wake a lot of damage and fear was left. The school was evacuated, all buildings closed down and locked, and the university was left at their mercy because, hey, what will the few hundred security staff do against over a thousand porros except stand idly by?

I have a very low opinion on UNAM’s administrative staff but in this case I admire the nerve to at least stand close to the action when most people would run away. But the fact is UNAM is nobody’s land, and as such is usually a victim to this sort of event. Of course public force could be called to hold off the mobs, but that would be a violation of university autonomy and a huge backlash would come. So no, instead the entire university is left at the mercy of these guys.

What’s most ironic is that these guys are supposed to be university students; they should uphold its values and be honest, have integrity and be open to dialog, not resort to vandalism and violence.

So there you have it: the country actually nurtures something that is worth all the trouble; one of the few candlelights in Mexico’s darkness. An institution to make us proud, within the country and internationally. This is the best Mexico has to offer: its best cultural achievements, its brightest minds, its most open and plural community.

What do Mexicans do with this wonder? they milk it for all it’s worth, take malicious advantage of it, use it to further political causes, vandalize it, harming its reputation and property, and above all, scare away the very minds that helped build this institution. Because hey, let me tell you, after today the only thing on my mind is to put as big a distance between me and these people as possible.

I won’t for the time being, because I’m proud of this university (I studied here) and glad to be able to contribute to make it better. However my patience is wearing thin, as my concern grows that the university is becoming more and more a mirror of how things work in this country. If we don’t respect and protect UNAM, what’s left for us to defend and be proud of? precious little, I think.

Reasons to leave Mexico #1-1

Here’s a report about how a female elephant escaped a circus warehouse and then wandered into a highway, where it was struck and killed by a passenger bus.

Interestingly the note talked about how the elephant “caused” the accident. I think that any bus driver in decent conditions would be able to spot a 5-ton animal a MILE away and behave accordingly.

So that’s how a 40-year life was ended because the driver just “didn’t know what to do”. In a way, I’m almost glad the driver also died from the impact.

And that’s just a taste of how poor Mexico’s wildlife culture really is. Nobody cared about the elephant really, and if this can happen to such a beast, imagine the hard time other animals are having here : cats, dogs, cattle, horses.

Clearly, Mexico is a lousy country to be in, even for an animal. And today that has turned into tragedy.

Reasons to leave Mexico #1

A few days ago we went to Burger King to buy some cheezburgers. Once inside we witnessed something quite bizarre: about half of the people in the kitchen were seniors, perhaps starting at 70 years old. Here they were, working their asses off to crank out burgers as fast as possible, looking bleary and tired. a 40-something woman was bossing them around and asking them to move faster. Hey, it’s lunch time so things can indeed get pretty hectic.

At first I’d think that it’s great that these people, who probably  wouldn’t have found any other job, can get an opportunity at Burger King. Actually I’ve seen elderly people getting very low-key jobs, like janitoring or burger making, and while it’s a bit depressing, it’s also good that they can get jobs at that age.

Then again, most civilized countries have some sort of policy to take care of their elders. Even here in Mexico we’re supposed to have pension plans (AFOREs, a whole mess where you actually are investing your money on a losing portfolio, but can do nothing about it), government support for the elderly (local support amounts to MXN $700.00 a month, federal government gives a similar amount I think) and in a worst-case scenario a family should be able to support their elders.

So what’s happening? the fact is that those aids are insufficient and elders are forced to go looking for jobs speaks badly about Mexico and its policy regarding the elderly. So here I am working my ass off to survive in this country, and come retiring time, I won’t have enough savings to support myself; government policy to ensure I do have savings is flawed so there’s no guarantee, the economic situation is such that even my children might have a hard time maintaining me, and even relief programs giving a token amount of monthly aid are grossly insufficient, due to the country’s bad economic situation where the aid is hardly enough to purchase basic foods.

So the usual questionis, do we really want to live in a country that’ll be this thankless and ruthless to even an elderly person who shouldn’t have to work his ass off just to scrape by at the end of his life? … as usual the answer is up in the air.

Is virtualization a step backwards?

A note on Slashdot says that vApp, [is] a tool that will allow developers to ‘encapsulate the entire app infrastructure in a single bundle — servers and all.’ Indeed part of the push with virtualization is that you can have an application running on its own instance of the operating system, and share the hardware resources between many such app/OS “bundles”.

I think this way of seeing things is dangerous! Let’s analyze history for a bit. First, application programs ran standalone on a computer. As more and more programs began to appear, it became clear and obvious that they all required several common services: memory management, input/output, disk access, printing, graphics routines, and so on. Thus operating systems were born, where the OS would handle these common tasks and free application programmers from having to do that. An added benefit is that the OS could arbitrate access to these resources and enable multitasking of several applications, since all the apps talk to the OS through APIs and need not concern themselves with low-levelness.

Then beasts such as Windows appeared. Both the OS and the applications that use it are so brain-dead, that most vendors who sell server-grade Windows applications basically require that each app has its own dedicated server on a standalone Windows installation.

This of course is ridiculous and byzantine. This is where VMware came in and realized that a typical organization could have say, 10 servers each running at 5% usage, each with a mission critical application that absolutely must be on its own on this server. And they said “well how about we run 10 instances of Windows, isolated from each other through virtualization, and then we can have a single box at 50% usage running all 10 apps the way they want to”.

This is indeed the bread-and-butter of VMWare. But beware! are you noticing a trend here? by “demoting” each OS/app set to an “app bundle” status, VMWare is indeed taking a step backwards. Okay, so they want VMWare ESX to take the place of the traditional OS, and have each application/OS running on its own. This looks suspiciously familiar to the “app has to do everything by itself” model we escaped from a couple of decades ago!

Sure, as an application programmer I was freed from having to program my own routines for a lot of tasks (for systems such as Mac OS or a decent Linux graphical environment, the libraries free me from a LOT of mundane chores). However, the second killer advantage of an OS providing services is efficiency; this means one piece of software providing access to all applications; I run one OS for all my apps and save on memory, disk space and CPU cycles.

By moving the actual OS (VMWare) down, it provides only very basic services to the “apps” on top (the OS). So indeed, every app carries a gigantic “library” of functions since, in effect, this library is now an entire operating system. The overhead for having several copies of the OS running is gigantic; each Windows installation takes up a couple of gigabytes, while consuming a few hundred megabytes of RAM and a fair share of CPU cycles. On startup, you have 10 copies of Windows, all performing the exact same bootup sequence and reading the same files (albeit from different disk locations, so no caching performance boost).

Worst of all, without proprietary hacks, you also lose the important benefit of interprocess communications. After all, and this is one of VMWare’s purported benefits, each app is isolated from the others, by virtue of running under its own OS instance.

So who is the culprit here? Sure, poorly programmed Windows applications which can’t work without littering your entire hard drive with DLLs and barf if another unknown process is running at the same time, have most of the blame. But this trend is spreading to other operating systems (Zimbra, I’m looking at you). A huge step backwards looms over us, once developers begin to think “hey, I can actually take control of the entire operating system and have it bent to my app’s will and requirement; after all, if the user has a problem with that, he can always virtualize my app and OS”.

What is needed is to go back to well-behaved applications, ones that are designed from the ground up to play well with others, and that by this very design trait, do not interfere with others.

I realize that this might be difficult; after all, with all the dependencies between system components, it might be understandable that my app’s database configuration requirements might break another’s. But then again, the solution is NOT to run two apps with TWO separate databases on TWO different operating systems. Either I find a way to NOT require my app to mess things up, or I provide with a non-system-wrecking component that gives me the service I want. Sure, it’d be a pain in the ass to run two instances of SQL Server, each on a different directory and on a different port, but it beats running two entire copies of Windows. Or wait, wasn’t Windows stable enough for this already?

Still, I think it’s a matter of politeness and cooperation between developers, to not require me to wreck my OS or virtualize in order to run an application. The reasons for virtualization must be different: consolidation of workloads, isolation for security or experimentation purposes, ease of deployment/restoration in case of disaster. Because, hey, do you all remember when everybody was saying “one of the advantages of Windows is that developers don’t have to develop printing, graphics, file access, GUIs and sound separately for each app and for each piece of hardware out there! the OS gives us that service” ? .

Sure developers deserve a break; that’s no excuse to be lazy, and you should think of us, sysadmins of the world, who also have to care for and feed the operating system instances on which your apps run. And trust me, each OS instance, however virtual it might be, still counts as a separate server, with the same care & feeding needs as if it were a standalone box. And however cool it might sound, trust me, I’d rather not wrestle with 150 virtual servers, when 5 well-kept instances would do the same job. KTHX!

Reasons to leave Mexico

I’m officially beginning my long overdue series on reasons for us to migrate away from Mexico. Because if you look at it objetively, we are making a decent living with few worries or fears. But sometimes things happen that shake you to the core, and once you analyze them, you realize they should not happen in a country with Mexico’s “specifications”. So why is everything failing in this country? I mean, it’s not Zimbabwe with its rampant inflation and eternal crysis, not Iraq or Afghanistan, ravaged by war; it’s not even the USA, theoretically we shouldn’t live in fear, as we have no terrorism or worldwide hatred against us. So the point here is to present those events that, as they happen, show the things that everyday citizens like us see that are wrong in Mexico, and make us wonder why are we putting up with all this. What do we get out of the bargain? and the answer, more and more often is, “nothing, really”. And the follow-up question is : why are we here? Indeed, the point of the series is to eventually find an answer to these; but I suspect that we will not, as so many things in this country that go unanswered.

McCain or Obama? You know the answer

Dear United States of America: an amazing oportunity is coming your way this november. So please, take a look at the immediate past. It’s been eight years. So, do yourselves and us, the rest of the world, a big big favor. Vote for Obama. Don’t vote for McCain.

Wii is gimmicky, says Microsoft

Nintendo Wii

Okay, I usually know Microsoft people live in a different world and it’s usually OK. However this guy here is completely delusional.

This Microsoft VP slams Wii Fit and calls the entire Wii ecosystem a “gimmick”. He argues that it’s solid, rewarding gameplay and control schemes that bring players back, and that by pushing gimmicky add-ons and controllers such as Wii Fit or the Wii Remote is not a sustainable scheme.

Whatever, I bet this guy hasn’t played some of the great Wii games like Okami, No More Heroes or even Wii Sports; the Wii’s control scheme works beautifully with those games and there’s definitely nothing as rewarding in the XBox world, compared to slashing foes with your remote on No More Heroes,  or using it as a brush in Okami, easily one of the most beautiful, best thought-out videogames I’ve ever seen. As for Wii Sports, there’s nothing gimmicky about a game that has the entire family playing and having fun within five minutes; as opposed to most Xbox games that you can barely start to play after 5 minutes of fidgeting with all the options, choices, wizards, menus, and so on.

But wait, there’s more. At some point in the article this MSFT cronie actually talks about how THEY are about to introduce a new game with a peripheral for … get this… wireless karaoke. And they tell me *that* is not a gimmick and it promotes deep, engrossing gameplay. Pfft.

Sorry, I just had to laugh at this guy and point out that, whatever, the Wii is outselling the Xbox anyway, so, i guess it is sour grapes after all.


I just released a prefixed_attributes plugin for Rails.

Rails has a handy number_to_human_size method, but in order to use it, all
your quantities need to be in non-scaled units, and it’s cumbersome to have
your users typing 100 gigabyte amounts by hand. You’d normally have a
“bytes” column in your records and add virtual attributes to your models.
This plugin adds those attributes for you.
The plugin adds a prefixed_attribute method to all your classes. Use it to mark an
existing attribute on your class (even a non-AR one) like this:

prefixed_attribute :bytes, :type => :binary
prefixed_attribute :hertz, :type => :si

More information here.

Wii Fit: I’m aching all over!

So Wii Fit has launched worldwide and stirred a plethora of reactions. The thing appears to be selling like pancakes, altough as usual, here in Mexico it’s so damn expensive that most of the stores have piles of Wii Fit boxes awaiting their turn.

Also it has received some pretty harsh reviews. The one that struck me the most was the gamespot review , from a site I usually trust for their quality reviews, which punished the game with a mere 7.0 score and some strange criticism. And general opinion is mixed, altough a good amount of reviews focus on how it’s easy to cheat, how the excercises aren’t all that good, how the game is limited and shallow, and how you should just buy a set of dumbbells or running shoes and get doing some real sports.

These people are missing the point, and misunderstanding Wii Fit’s target demographic. Despite the images of fit, athletic people in Wii Fit’s box, the game is really not aimed at them. Wii Fit’s audience is the at-large population of couch potatoes, of people who need two things in order to move even a finger: someone or something to tell them what to do and how to do it, and a large amount of motivation. These people would indeed rather spend their free time playing games than exercising.

So for these people Wii Fit is a great tool to get moving. The game is so cute and cheery, you can’t help but follow the exercises to your best. The game is encouraging without being patronizing, and it rarely feels like it’s punishing you for not working hard enough. I can see plenty of positive reinforcement here, and it really makes a difference in users wanting to keep up with the exercises.

Another complaint was that the exercises are too simple and with too few repetitions, and tougher workouts need to be “unlocked”. I can see this complaint coming from someone who is already somewhat fit and wants to go straight into doing 100 jacknives or run in-place for 45 minutes. However, again, Wii Fit aims to hold the user’s hand from the beginning, and it does this by not overwhelming the user with too many activities, or giving the choice for a too-difficult workout. I’d be discouraged if I was given the choice of 5,20,50 and 100 repetitions and I could only complete 5. By unlocking the harder choices as I make progress, Wii Fit rewards my improvement by opening up more choices. It’s not about limitation, it’s about motivation and taking it easy.

Analysis about the shallowness of Wii Fit’s balance games and aeerobic activities totally misses the mark. Wii Fit’s point is moving, not engaging in a lengthy videogame. And indeed, most activities are short, a few minutes at most. This keeps you changing pace and by chopping the workout into smaller pieces, gives you short-term goals to work towards. Indeed, I see a lot of behavior shaping here, and it really helps you working towards your goal which is, surprise, not completing an involved videogame, but rather to exercise for 30 minutes daily.

Also, some people complain that the game makes it easy to cheat. I pity the fools. In this case you would be cheating nobody but yourself. After all, the only tools the game has to monitor you are the wii remote and the balance board. So if you want to cheat by wiggling the remote through the running sequence or stand on the board when you should be doing pushups, then go ahead. But it’s just like being an alcoholic: you bought the thing because you wanted to be helped. If you’re not going to take the help, then there’s nothing Wii Fit, or anybody else for that matter, can do for you.

However once you make a determination to follow through with exercising, Wii Fit proves to be a fun, encouraging and rather helpful tool. After your first session, when you feel sore in muscles you didn’t even know you had, you’ll realize that, while Wii Fit won’t turn you into Charles Atlas, it will indeed help you be at least a bit fitter.

I think Wii Fit’s largest merit is its motivational strength, followed by its low entry barrier. An exercise video will show you how to do the exercises, but it lacks all the tracking tools and has absolutely no interactivity. Tougher exercises like mountain biking or trail running reward you with gorgeous scenery and tons of adrenaline, but are beyond most couch potatos’ reach. And gym work is so boring! Wii Fit is accessible to just about everyone and helps you through your first baby steps in order to get you moving. And the one thing we liked the most about Wii Fit is that it’s loads of fun, even if you’re just watching 🙂

Daylight Savings Time: what’s the point?

What’s the point? even studies in the USA find out that DST actually costs more money than it saves. If it’s so ineffectual in northern latitudes, what the freaking hell are we doing following DST here in Mexico?

A study performed in the state of Indiana found out that DST costs upwards of 7 million dollars, money that wouldn’t be spent if there was no DST. Here in Mexico the benefits have always been marginal at best; particularly since as consumers, we see no benefit at all; my electricity bill hasn’t shown a reduction due to DST. I’ve always held that a measure with such a high social cost absolutely needs to carry a tangible benefit for the average person; I don’t care if the government were able to defer infrastructure investments or the state-controlled electricity companies saved a huge amount of money; I care about my power bill not decreasing, while at the same time I have to suffer having my bio-clock all messed up for 6 months at a time. Yes, there are those of us who don’t adjust after a week or a month; I’m still having trouble getting up in september and days seem to last less while under DST.

And I mean, if all of Mexico is more southern than Arizona, and Arizona doesn’t observe DST, why the goddamn hell do we? huh?