Strong opinions, weakly held

Month: April 2008 (page 2 of 4)

How law schools juke the stats

I’m particularly interested in performance metrics and statistics and how they are used and manipulated. One of my favorite terms from The Wire was “juking the stats” — manipulating the crime statistics for political reasons, usually be reclassifying felonies as lesser crimes to make the felony rate appear lower. Any quantitative system for measuring progress toward a goal provides the opportunity for juking the stats, and the challenge for creators of such systems is to be aware of these methods and account for them.

Michael Froomkin posts about a statistic law schools are measuring — attrition of students after their first year, and how that statistic can be interpreted. In his comments, he describes the incentive for top tier law schools to admit fewer first year law students and accept more students as transfers after the first year. This enables them to cherry pick the best students and increase their bar passage rate, which is one of the metrics applied by the all important (but dubiously accurate) US News rankings.

Expect more posts on juking the stats in the future.

What happened to Snopes.com?

A friend sent me a link to Snopes article and noted that JavaScript is used to prevent people from selecting text on their pages. It looks like they’re using a pretty dumb trick:


You can still select all and copy. You just can’t select portions of the text unless you disable JavaScript.

I also noticed that Snopes has eliminated the bylines for the article writers. I find that a bit odd, not only because they used to be there, but also because some care was taken to make the bylines clever and pithy. I tried to find some examples of the old bylines, but I see that Snopes.com blocks archive.org as well.

The Snopes.com Wikipedia article doesn’t mention any changes to the site in recent times. I wonder if it’s just going the way of lots of enthusiast driven sites, where the only way to make a living is to lard the site user-hostile ads? (See also: Football Outsiders.) Anyone have any scoop on Snopes.com? It’s a shame to see what was once one of my favorite sites seemingly regress.

Update: Pulled up from the comments — XKCD on Snopes.

Another update: Some Snopes articles are really just ads.

Six Apart moves into advertising and services

Six Apart has acquired uber-Movable Type consulting firm Apperceptive, creating a new professional services branch, and has also launched a new ad network for bloggers. For what it’s worth, I think that Six Apart’s moves lately to reach out to people who aren’t using their tools for publishing are sound strategy.

More on the state of publishing

Last week I made a flip remark about 10k forms in linking to Tim O’Reilly’s comments on Amazon.com competing with publishers. I wanted to link to his post again and urge you to skip down and read Tim’s responses to commenters to get a better idea of exactly what he’s talking about.

Tim points out that right now, there are only three wholesale buyers of computer books, and two of them are ceding a large part of the market to the third. Here’s his example:

Let me give you an example of how today’s much more consolidated marketplace makes it harder to place publishing bets. Borders and B&N have largely thrown in the towel on many high end books, saying “Amazon’s going to get that business anyway.” So they’ve shrunk their computer book sections, and are taking zero copies of important books, even from important publishers like us. We recently told them of our plans for a Hadoop book for instance, and both B&N and Borders said they won’t carry it. That leaves us with Amazon. Amazon will pre-order only a couple of hundred copies.

I’ve had to fight with my publishing team to get this book approved, since they’re worried that they won’t make back the investment it will take to bring it to market. It’s a lot easier to be sure of making money on a book like Mac OS X: The Missing Manual, to which the chains will commit an advance order of thousands of copies. Now that’s also good publishing, but you can see how the opportunities are shrinking.

The risks of monkeying with DNS

It looks like the increasing unwillingness of ISPs to just return a “host not found” response to the browser is starting to cause problems. ISPs have figured out that it’s easy to make money by intercepting DNS errors and redirecting browsers to ads. The ISPs justify this by saying that the DNS errors aren’t helpful and that they’re adding value, but it’s a transparent money grab.

As is so often the case with these kinds of schemes, the people who implemented it did an awful job, and opened a huge exploitable hole that enabled malicious sites to hijack real domains and impersonate their owners. I can’t help but wonder if the reason so many of these boneheaded money making schemes are rife with security holes is that the companies can’t find any decent programmers who are willing to build them.

I expect to see a lot more of this thing happening as ISPs continue to try to exploit their position between users and the sites they’re trying to reach.

Links for April 19

At the convention

Wake County Democratic Party Delegate

This morning my wife and I attended the Democratic county convention. The main purposes of the convention are to nominate delegates to the district and state conventions, and to adopt a platform to be submitted for inclusion in the state party platform. It’s also a place for candidates and activists to show up and meet the party faithful. Any elected official or candidate who bothers to show up (or send someone to speak for them) is introduced to the full convention from the podium.

The energy level this year was higher than the last time we attended. Part of that was that the convention was held at a smaller venue, so the people there to campaign had less room to operate. A larger part is that North Carolina’s primary is relevant this year, and Democrats are hopeful of making gains just about everywhere thanks to their success in recent elections. As delegates arrived, they were mobbed by people eager to get them to sign up for things, put stickers on their shirts, and generally submit to campaigning. This is the sort of thing that’s ordinarily frustrating but is actually kind of fun when you’re at an event designed for that purpose.

The Hillary Clinton campaign had a larger official presence at the convention than the Barack Obama campaign, but based on applause and stickers on shirts, I’d say Obama supporters outnumbered Clinton supporters three to one. For the North Carolinians out there, it sure looks like Lieutenant Governor Bev Perdue is going to carry Wake County by a large margin over Richard Moore. I’m probably going to vote for Moore in the primary, though. I should also note that my friend who works for the Department of Labor recommends that Democrats vote for Robin Anderson for Labor Commissioner in the primary.

Once all of the politicians have been introduced, the convention gets down to working on the resolutions. The resolutions are a set of political positions that the county feels the state party should adopt. A separate committee writes the list of resolutions, and then they’re presented to the convention for adoption. Every year they put forward a motion to adopt them all in one big batch, and every year there are people who have problems with the resolutions, and want to debate them individually. The catch is that most everyone else just wants to go home. So there’s a series of motions and other parliamentary shenanigans involved with trying to get the resolutions debated and with trying to end debate and move the convention along.

The funny thing is that the resolutions serve very little purpose in actually changing the laws. Wake is just one county in North Carolina and North Carolina is just one state of 50. It’s kind of frustrating to sit through lengthy debates on this issues, but at the same time it’s heartening to see people really engaged on this issues (even if many of them seem to misunderstand them). In the end, all of the resolutions are acted upon and the convention is adjourned.

One of the best takeaways from the county convention is the reminder that even though the party is divided by the Presidential primary, most everyone is working toward a similar set of goals, and there are a lot more elections being contested than just the one for President.

If you sympathize with a political party, I’d strongly encourage you to get involved at the precinct level and maybe make it to a county convention. It’s an entertaining way to be educated.

Apple and Safari for Windows

Apple has backed off on pushing Safari for Windows out to iTunes users as a software update and now more accurately lists it as “new software“. What I find interesting about Apple’s sudden eagerness to get Windows users to install Safari is that it shows they’re significantly more committed to it as a product than I would have originally guessed. My original speculation when Safari for Windows released was that Apple was making it available so that Web developers who use Windows would have no excuse for not testing their sites in Safari, and more importantly, Mobile Safari. Now it looks like Apple feels like Safari has legs and that they want to get into the browser fight on Windows.

I think Apple could stand to improve their conduct a bit in terms of how they push out the software, but I welcome the additional competition in the browser market. It feels like Safari more than any other browser is pushing the state of the art forward in terms of standards compliance.

Usability and performance, part 1

I’ve started collecting screen shots that illustrate the problem of performance issues affecting the usability of Web sites. I saw this one in a shopping cart from an online store (I don’t remember which one, and they probably wouldn’t want to be identified anyway).

As you can see, this text was added to the Web page because the “add to cart” request takes a long time to process. To prevent users from adding duplicate items to their cart, the Web site warns the user to keep waiting rather than pressing the button again.

The proper approach would be to improve the shopping cart so that adding items doesn’t take so long, or to find a more robust hosting provider, but those alternatives are more work and more expensive. I’d be willing to bet that the people running the site are using third party software that they can’t fix even if they want to.

Links for April 16

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