Wisconsin web site cost $2 MILLION dollars!

Dan Cody is an old school techie like me, having used USENET back in the days when a 2400 baud modem was literally the hottest thing since an overclocked 386 without a dedicated cooling system. Bad analogies aside, Dan took it upon himself to take the old story about how the new Campaign Finance Information System (CFIS) web site that was developed for the Government Accountability Board (GAB). You may recall that the new web site carried a skyline image of Minneapolis rather than Madison, which many of us found amusing, but nothing much came of it after that.

While the site now does have a proper image on it, the cost of the web site is something that deserves more attention. You see, Dan did an open records request to find out just how much money the state had spent on this official state web site.

The cost was $2 million. Yes, two million dollars. Not that somehow less shocking $1M that the Journal Sentinel reported, but two million.

Is it any wonder we’re in a deficit when the state spends this much money on a web site of limited functionality and apparently unlimited budget demands?

Hats off to Dan for his great work on this. It’s one of the best blog stories I’ve ever seen, and it’s right over here.


Happy 25th birthday, Macintosh!

O Macintosh, though I may have once developed a foreign operating system to run on your hardware (the PowerPC, not 680×0 or x86), you have done me right since we were first introduced in 1987. I know, that makes me a newbie, but hey, we all gotta start somewhere.

Yeah, happy birthday!

(Yes gads, that means the Mac is older than some of my 7.5 readers…)

Two glimpses inside the tight cocoon that is Apple, Inc.

While I wish Steve Jobs the best of health, one also must wonder how good or bad his infamous vice grip on secrecy at Apple actually is for the health of the company. Financially, it’s been great since he returned in 1997. They just had $1.61 billion in profits, and went from being a fading star to a rising power in many fields.

Since Steve Jobs has taken a leave of absence to try and beat his health problems, two interesting glimpses into Apple have come to light. First was Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook’s view of the “Apple philosophy,” which I first saw referred to over on MacRumors.com. Honestly, I haven’t looked at it yet, as it doesn’t seem quite as interesting to me as does this “behind-the-scenes interview with Apple’s own design guru Jonathan Ive in his natural habitat,” as Ars Technica put it. And quite honestly I haven’t looked at that yet either, as I actually posted about it before reading it. Ooouh, those daring bloggers, with their faulty trust in the reliability of online media! Well, either way, I figure some of my 8.5 readers — no, Mobile’s Take isn’t a Mac guy (so strange, you’d think he would be) — my 7.5 readers will enjoy it.

To be fair(er), David Chartier at Ars Technica noted that ”

Apple has been surprisingly open about its design and manufacturing processes lately. The most recent example is the video Apple made to show off its new unibody process for the current MacBook generation in which the company showed actual manufacturing clips of MacBook enclosures in various states of construction.” Personally, I flash back to the early 1990s, when one TV ad showed the assembly process of computer motherboards gliding along a river of what appeared to be molten metal — probably solder? I can’t find it on YouTube, but who needs that when you can see Kevin Costner using an Apple Lisa?

SimCity iPhone — HOWTO run mass transit?

One of the problems with software released for the iPhone and iPod Touch (the latter of which we have) is that documentation can be a bit on the thin side, if there is any at all. SimCity knows is a complicated game, and simply laying zones and roads will not result in a happy metropolis. I’ve been happily playing the new SimCity iPhone (on the iPod Touch) for a few days.  My frustration comes from that I can’t figure out for the life of me is how to make buses run. I can place bus stops all around town, but my advisors won’t tell me how to start a bus service. This is a problem, because the people of Monkeyville need to get to work, but for some reason, many of them just can’t. I don’t want my fair SimCitizens to leave town just because they can’t get to work. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Update: A friend wrote, ” Busses [sic.] run themselves.. all you need to build are the shelters. But you have to build a shitload of them. i.e. every couple blocks, in both directions. you need to design routes in your head, and then put bus stops accordingly. That’s why I go car only in my cities. 🙂 ”

10 June 2009: I recall that when you build train stations and accompanying tracks, you may not see the trains running unless you are sufficiently zoomed in. That is to say, you don’t see them when you’re looking at a birds’ eye view of the city. I believe buses work the same way. I wish you could see them while zoomed out, but so be it.

4 September 2011: So, I started playing SimCity again, this time on the iPad. It’s much easier to play on the big touch screen! Also, it seems that transit works best in areas with medium-to-high residential density. Makes sense if you think about it. Also, I think it’s much easier to add bus stops to a built city than it is to clear a path for rail service. (That almost goes without saying.) Once on a whim, I started a new city, and first thing, I laid down rail lines, even before I had placed zones. (Gotta save the cash!) Also, I found that I had an easy time placing medium-density residential zones around the rail stop. The zones filled in quickly.

It’s like how it is with today’s sprawled reality: places with dense(r) residential, commercial, or industrial areas will be better served by mass transit than widely, thinly spread areas. By building my city to be dense, I had the train stations getting hundreds of SimRiders per day. Depots in lighter residential areas stayed close to zero.

Are the recent Russian cyber-attacks Windows-based?

I have a question about the spate of apparently Russian cyber-attacks that have prompted the Defense Department to have President Bush sit down for a little talk. Here’s what prompted my question; quoting the L.A. Times:

“Military computers are regularly beset by outside hackers, computer viruses and worms. But defense officials said the most recent attack involved an intrusive piece of malicious software, or “malware,” apparently designed specifically to target military networks.

“The first indication that the Pentagon was dealing with a computer problem came last week, when officials banned the use of external computer flash drives. At the time, officials did not indicate the extent of the attack or the fact that it may have targeted defense systems or posed national security concerns.

“The invasive software, known as agent.btz, has circulated among nongovernmental U.S. computers for months. But only recently has it affected the Pentagon’s networks. It is not clear whether the version responsible for the cyber-intrusion of classified networks is the same as the one affecting other computer systems.”

Since these worms and/or viruses were ostensibly spread via infected flash drives, that would imply that the computers that got infected were running Microsoft Windows, a notoriously insecure and virus-prone computer operating system. While WIndows is the de facto standard in many parts of the world, its historically insecure nature should make it a prime candidate for removal from national security computers. Yes, it would mean a change in how things are done, but the security implications of foreign parties being able to infect U.S. computers with harmful malware should override the “it’s how it’s always been done” inertia. 

Logical alternatives are Mac OS X and Linux. Neither Mac OS X or the many available versions of Linux have ever had a single computer virus. While that will likely change at some point, both systems’ inherently open nature makes it much easier for an effective solution to be developed and rapidly deployed. Also, their openness makes it more difficult for malware writers to make devastating software. This may seem contradictory — how, if a system is wide open, can it be secure? As Bruce Perens wrote,

“The publication of source code actually improves security because the program or operating system can be peer-reviewed by anyone who cares to read it. Many security bugs that are overlooked in other operating systems have been caught and repaired in Linux, because of its extensive peer-review process.”

The very same way that programmers can use “thousands of momentarily-idle workstations together over the Internet and make them all work on the same problem simultaneously” [Perens] not only make sit possible “to create ‘virtual’ supercomputers, at low or no cost,” the same trick makes it possible for malware to seize insecure computer networks and turn them into massive cyber-attack mechanisms, such as what may have hit the U.S. computers in the first referenced story. With Linux or Mac OS X, such attacks would be much less likely to happen. This is not to say they would be impossible, but, given the peer-reviewed nature of the underlying code in both systems, they are much more difficult to create, and can be much more quickly addressed by “good” developers.

On the topic of openness, Linux (and the BSD UNIXes) actually prevail over Mac OS X. If a dreadful cyber-attack succeeds in crippling computers running Mac OS X, we are dependent upon Apple to issue the fix. Hopefully this would happen quickly, but we have seen in the past that it sometimes has taken Apple a relatively long period of time to issue security updates. Linux, on the other hand, is often updated within a matter of hours, not days, weeks, or months. Both security and performance considerations led Lockheed Martin and the United States Navy to implement Linux in a high-performance cluster. It is my hope that the incoming Obama administration will take the implementation of Linux and other open source software under serious consideration as a way to improve our national security.

Two computers die in two weeks; Backups save the day


Although both Stacie and I have now had our computers die, and the failure of hers is yet to be diagnosed much less fixed or replaced, we both have recent-enough backups of our essential data. For me, that means 1.67 gigabytes of photos, every single one of which are being restored to my laptop from the external hard drive.

Make backups. And let’s be careful out there.