The resurgence of the web forum

I saw an interesting thread on Twitter recently. The Ghost community shut down their Slack instance in favor of a forum. Yes, those mainstays of mid-aughts online socialization seem to be making a comeback. And I get it. As much as I appreciate Slack for work chat, it’s kind of a pain to use socially when you have a lot of groups.

I’ve written before about the downsides of Slack for communities. But in that, I was thinking more of the individual perspective. John’s thread brings the group perspective to mind.

As communities grow, it’s harder for people to feel a sense of belonging. Slack’s fast pace and emphasis on the moment make it hard to step away. Indeed, in a large community using the free version, you lose history pretty quickly. This is true of other group instant messaging, too, of course. But there’s a reason you don’t see a lot of thousand-person chat rooms (or dozen-person group texts). Many-to-many communication gets noisy quickly.

If a community’s messages are largely of the question-and-answer variety, forums make a lot of sense. Keeping the answers near the questions makes it easier for future visitors. Both the questions and answers become easier to find. Of course fora have their own issues. You have to remember to go to the website and check for new messages (or else get a barrage of emails that you’ll ignore anyway). But it goes to show that technology is cyclical. And even good products can fade as the newness wears off.

Beware weather forecast snake oil

Snake oil salesman are found in every industry and weather forecasting is no different. So how do you identify weather forecast snake oil? One major sign is that the forecaster doesn’t talk about it until after the fact. Another is that you only hear about the successful forecasts. And of course, if it seems to good to be true, there’s a good chance it is.

I recently saw someone talking about severe weather forecasts months out. The man behind these forecasts isn’t just some rando with a website. He has a PhD in meteorology from the University of Oklahoma and is a forecaster at the Storm Prediction Center. So it’s entirely possible that he’s on to something here. But I’m suspicious.

He recently posted about his forecast for March tornadoes. The forecast is ostensibly from three months before the outbreak. I looked through the archives and there was no indication prior to the fact. His website contains no forward-looking forecasts. There’s no methodology. There’s no discussion of busted forecasts.

I don’t know Dr. Cook. I don’t want to say anything about him as a person or a forecaster. But until he shows more transparency on his forecasts, I’m inclined to call it weather forecast snake oil.

Woz deactivates his Facebook account

USA TODAY reported Sunday that Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak deactivated his Facebook account. “Woz” said “The profits are all based on the user’s info, but the users get none of the profits back.” I read this quote and I wondered where he had been. Certainly we’ve learned more details in recent weeks about how Facebook makes their money, but I didn’t think the general mechanism was hidden. Woz is much smarter than I could ever hope to be, so I found his sudden realization a bit confusing.

Now Woz is hardly the first person to deactivate his account. In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, “#DeleteFacebook” is a popular topic. But despite the popularity of the topic, users don’t seem to be following through. I still use Facebook, although I’m spending less time on the site. My engagement has been trending downward for a while, and I can’t say that Cambridge Analytica had much of an effect one way or another.

It’s been said a bazillion times before, but it bears repeating: if you’re not paying for the service, you’re the product. I don’t view that as a value judgment, though. I’m willing to trade data for free services that are valuable to me. The question is: does the data I give up equal or exceed the value I get from the product? If it does, I keep using it.

Facebook is a good tool for passively keeping up with people I like. It’s algorithms ensure that I can’t use it to actively keep up on my friends, but it’s better than nothing. I was talking to my friend’s mother over the weekend and she decided to attend her 50th high school reunion because of the reconnections she made with Facebook. Meanwhile, I haven’t bothered with any high school reunions in part because Facebook allows me to keep in touch.

As with any economic exchange, each person needs to weigh what they give and what they get. Facebook can stand to be more transparent about what happens with user data (though that’s not even the issue they need to be most transparent about). But just because the users aren’t getting the profits, that doesn’t mean they’re not getting value.

Where is spring?

I look at my calendar and it says that we’re well into April. But the weather hasn’t received the memo. I’m a warm weather person anyway, and by April I expect to have more good days than bad. But it’s still cold. It snowed yesterday and snow remains in the forecast.

How not-spring is it? Here are some “fun” facts:

  • Zero days in March 2018 had a temperature above 60 degrees Fahrenheit. The last time Lafayette did not reach 60 in March was in 2001. Since then, we’ve hit the 80’s twice (80 in 2007 and 86 in 2012).
  • We briefly reached the 60’s on Tuesday. That was the first time we hit the 60’s since February 28.
  • We haven’t had three consecutive days above 60 since October 23.
  • The highest temperature in March was 2.5 degrees colder than the highest temperature in January.
  • The average temperature in March was only 3.4 degrees warmer than February. The normal increase is 9 degrees.
  • As measured by the monthly heating degree days, March 2018 was colder than six of the last 10 Marches.
  • Yesterday’s high temperature (which happened just after midnight) is only two degrees above the normal low for the day.

Now March 2018 hasn’t been historically cold for the Lafayette area. It’s just obnoxiously cold. And the cold pattern looks like it will stick around through at least the middle of the month. So I’ll keep my shorts put away and my window closed a little longer. Spring has to happen eventually.

Other writing – March 2018

What have I been writing when I haven’t been writing here?

Stuff I wrote

Microsoft

Opensource.com

Stuff I curated

Microsoft

The worst part of open source is code uber alles

If you know me, you know I’m an open source person. I use, contribute to, and advocate for open source software. I’ve written dozens of articles for Opensource.com. But open source has a big problem: open source communities tend to value code above all else.

Code is undeniably an important part of open source software. It’s hard to have software without code. But there’s a lot more to it.

Software doesn’t exist for its own benefit; it is written to serve the needs of people. This means that activities dealing with people are also critically important. Project management, design, QA, community management, marketing, et cetera are all people functions.

This isn’t to say that the people functions are more important than code. Without code, those functions don’t have a whole lot to do. But they all inform how the code is written, shared, and used. A project that only ships code is about as useful as a project that ships no code.

Open source projects need to write code. But they don’t need to diminish non-code contributions. And they particularly don’t need to diminish non-code contributors. And most importantly, they can’t accept bad behavior from a contributor just because they write a lot of good code.

Describing areas affected by weather

My local National Weather Service office recently issued a Special Weather Statement with an unhelpful headline: “Wintry mix likely Friday night and early Saturday along and northeast of a Clinton to Greensburg line.” I have at least a passing familiarity with many small towns in Indiana, but I had no idea where this line is.

Greensburg, I remembered after looking at a map, is in southeastern Indiana. It has a population of less than 12,000. Clinton turns out to not be terribly far from my home town of Lafayette. It’s a tiny little hamlet of fewer than 5,000 residents.

It seems pretty unreasonable to expect members of the general public to know where either of these towns are unless they happen to live near them. This means the headline of the product told the audience absolutely nothing.

In this particular case “the Interstate 74 corridor” would be an improvement. There’s still no guarantee that someone will know where that is, but if nothing else, it’s easier to find on a map. Of course, sometimes there’s not even a major highway or river to use as a reference.

But wait! It’s 2018. What if it just said “central Indiana” and directed people to the NWS website for more information? Then there could be a map that clearly shows the area affected. That’s tough for immediate impact events like tornado warnings, but it works for longer-fused products. And not everyone has an Internet connection, but it can still be shown on TV. And later in the body, a description can be given. But it doesn’t need to be the headline.

For a variety of reasons, NWS text products are stuck in a paradigm that no longer applies. Hopefully this changes as the agency continues to embrace modern methods of communication.

The lies we tell ourselves

Not long ago, I was catching up with a friend who lives overseas. She works for an environmental non-profit, and she’s a believer in their mission. At some point in our wandering, hour-long conversation, she mentioned how she doesn’t do something she knows she should. But it’s okay because of where she works. It balances out right?

I agreed with her somewhat self-deprecating observation. I tend to be a pragmatic guy, and I understand that we can’t do all the things we should do, even in support of the causes we care about. I said “oh, the lies we tell ourselves.” And maybe it is a lie, but it can be a necessary lie.

My family primarily uses a hybrid car. We recycle heavily and compost our food waste. We keep the house cool in the winter and warm in the summer. We line dry our clothes. it’s okay that we waste energy sometimes, right? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But we tell ourselves that it is because otherwise we’d go mad. It’s always possible to do a little bit more.

In a similar vein, I often tell myself lies about work. I got a degree in meteorology partly out of self-interest (storms are cool!) but also because meteorologists do important work that save people’s lives. When I ended up working in IT instead, I told myself that it was better that way. Sure, I could be a reasonably competent forecaster and do my part. But by supporting researchers at the university, I was enabling people much smarter than me to do work that could have a much broader impact.

When I left my departmental sysadmin job for a role on the central research computing group, that impact became even larger. I wasn’t making a direct impact, but there were now hundreds of professors and graduate students working to solve real problems not only in meteorology but in engineering, agriculture, and more.

And then I left for the private sector. While my company was enabling life sciences researchers to develop new pharmaceuticals and study genetics, most of the customers I worked closely with were in financial services. I was helping insurance companies make slightly more money. Now that I work in marketing, I’m even further removed from the work that makes the world a better place.

But I still find ways to convince myself that I’m taking my meager skills and using them to magnify the work of those smarter than me in order to make the world a better place. I have to or else I’ll go mad.

Changes to weather radar rolling out this spring

Since this week is Severe Weather Preparedness Week in Indiana, I figured it’s a good time to have a weather post. The National Weather Service is rolling out some changes to the 159 NEXRAD weather radars sites across the country. These changes affect the Volume Coverage Patterns (VCPs) – how the radars scan the sky.

How weather radar works

To put it in the simplest terms, radars work by sending out pulses of energy and listening for the echos. The radar antenna rotates in a circle in order to get a view all around. But it doesn’t just move in a circle. The antenna also tilts upward. By moving up through increasing tilts, the radar eventually gets a 3D image of precipitation.

The key word here is “eventually”. The slowest VCP takes about 10 minutes to complete a full scan. This is generally used with clear skies or light wintry precipitation. The slow speed allows for more sensitivity and saves wear on the radar’s mechanical parts. But even the fastest scan modes take 4.5-5 minutes. During rapidly-evolving severe weather events, that can be a long time.

The changes

This spring, the weather service is rolling out changes that will introduce two new VCPs. Critically, the new software build will also remove four existing VCPs. By reduce the total number of options, forecasters will have to spend less time thinking about which radar mode to select so they can spend more time interpreting the radar data.

One of the new VCPs is focused on general precipitation and is designed to include the best parts of the patterns it replaces. The other is a new clear air pattern that shares common scan elevations with the precipitation modes and can be used for non-convective precipitation. The NWS has a paper describing the new VCPs in greater detail.

The changes will happen via software updates planned to begin later this month or in early April. It may take some time to know what the daily impact of the new patterns is. Still, it’s good to see that over 25 years after the first operational NEXRAD was deployed, the system is continuing to evolve.

Hands on with the Samsung Galaxy Note 8

A few weeks ago, my Galaxy Note 4 began misbehaving. It would freeze for a few seconds. It would spontaneously reboot. After a day where it rebooted 14 times, I decided it was time to replace it. Of course the new Galaxy devices are coming out very soon, but if you take my usual approach and buy the previous generation to save money, this is a timely blog post.

Despite the recent flakiness, I’ve been generally impressed with Samsung’s phones. When I went to the T-Mobile store, I was trying to decide between the Galaxy S8 and the Galaxy Note 8. The Note 8 is bigger – bigger even than my Note 4 – and it has the S-Pen. I’ll admit that I don’t use the S-Pen often, but when I do, it’s really nice to have. So despite a price tag that’s about as close to $1,000 as you can get without being the iPhone X, I went for it. After almost a month, here’s what I think.

What I like

  • The size. I wish my thumbs were a bit larger, but I like the size of this phone. The extra real estate allows me to condense what had been five home screens down to 3. But the curved edges make it feel narrower than my Note 4, even though they’re the same width.
  • Wireless charging. Where has this been all my life? I have an aftermarket wireless charger on my night stand which makes getting up in the middle of the night much easier. And the model I keep on my desk flips up so that I can see and use my phone easily.
  • USB-C. I’m a firm believer in the rule that it takes three tries to correctly plug in a USB cable. USB-C destroys that rule and I love it.
  • The S-Pen. The Note 8’s S-Pen feels better to grip and it seems to have more pressure sensitivity. Sometimes I’ll just doodle on the screen for fun. It feels nicer to write with than most pens I’ve used.
  • Heart monitor. This is basically unchanged from the Note 4 as far as I can tell, but I really like this. Tracking my heart rate has been key to managing my mental and physical health during the last few turbulent months.
  • Smart Switch. This app made transferring apps and data from one phone to another pretty simple. Some settings, particularly with regard to notifications and third-party accounts, didn’t carry over. That may be more the fault of my old phone rebooting than a problem with the software.
  • Camera. I haven’t taken too many pictures yet, but the camera seems much improved. Picture quality at full zoom is particularly better.

What I’m indifferent to

  • The curved screen. I don’t (intentionally) use the little side tray. Stuff at the edges generally looks fine, but I’d be okay with a normal bezel.
  • Bixby. Bixby is limited. It doesn’t work with most apps I actually use. The voice recognition is decent, and it can at least tell the difference between my voice and my wife’s, which is nice. I played around with it for a few days just to see, but I’ve stopped since. I’m generally not interested in talking to my phone anyway.
  • USB-C. I like it, but I’m also indifferent to it. Mostly because I have a bunch of micro USB cables. As I begin to have more USB-C, my indifference will fade.
  • Waterproof. I haven’t put this to the test because I don’t want to break a thousand dollar phone. But if the specs are to be believed, I don’t have to worry about what happens if I accidentally give my phone a bath while I’m giving my kids a bath. (This is how my phone-2 was lost.)
  • Fingerprint sensor location. I know some people were upset about the fingerprint sensor moving to the back of the phone. I don’t use it, and I’m used to putting my finger on the back of the phone for heart monitoring.
  • Lack of physical buttons. It took a little getting used to not having a physical home button, or back and app switch buttons with a dedicated spot. Now that I’m used to it, I don’t care either way. It’s neither good nor bad. It just is.

What I dislike

  • The speaker location. The speaker is on the bottom of the phone when held vertically. When held horizontally, it’s on the side, which often means its inadvertently under my finger. This means I often muffle the sound.
  • The headphone jack location. I like that it has a headphone jack. I would prefer if it were on the top. It’s generally not a problem, but every once in a while, I’m holding the phone in just such a way that it’s annoying.
  • RF reception. I’ve noticed the Note 8 seems to have trouble getting signal in places my Note 4 didn’t. Specifically, it doesn’t get Wi-Fi in my bathroom very well. And I had no cellular signal in much of the terminal at SEA, which made trying to pull up my boarding pass a real adventure.

Thats where I am so far. The main thing I don’t have a good sense for is the battery life. It seems to burn up a little faster than I’d like, but since I usually keep it on a charger, it’s hard to tell. We’ll see what happens when I’ve had it for a year or so and the battery is well-aged.