Fire Your Doctor

If your health practitioner ever utters something along the lines of …and I will not stop until I completely decimate every last one of those cancer cells, you’ll need a new one.

Doctors use words with care and attention to detail. Words have specific meanings, especially those used in health care. Example: A laceration is a tear in tissue (generally unintended), whereas an incision is an intentional and precise surgical manoeuvre meant to split tissue in the right place. The two words mean different things even as they both describe the parting of tissue.

Surgeons creating incisions usually know the myriad nuances of putting things back together again, as well. This magic happens with sutures, of which there are many types and sizes used in specific situations. There is much precision and specificity in suturing. Surgeons can convey exact intentions and needs to other team members during procedures using words having precise meanings.

In such context you may correctly guess that a doctor would never, ever utter a phrase so ridiculous as that in my opening paragraph. To decimate something means to reduce by one tenth. (The prefix deci is an abbreviated form of the Latin decimus which means tenth.) You may find a dictionary suggesting an extended meaning of to destroy or remove a significant number or proportion of. No matter: The word means taking a very noticeable portion. It will never mean destroy completely.

If you’re going to try and cure somebody of their disease, you don’t set out with the goal of leaving 90-percent of it behind when you are done surgery. But that doesn’t stop the writers for Grey's Anatomy from using the word to describe the commitment one doctor has for helping another one beat a brain tumor that is certain to end her life too soon. I think writers who pull thesauruses out of their sunless regions just to find new words to use in their scripts are doing themselves, and all the show’s viewers a disservice.

I have nothing against anyone enjoying their chosen form of entertainment. Please do, while it lasts. Just know that such sloppy work fails to maintain suspension of disbelief, which disillusions thoughtful viewers. You can decimate your audience only so many times before advertisers pull the plug.


Preposterous Prose

Wanna know something? Not everyone is a linguistic genius. Not everyone has a great grasp on their native language. And those things are okay. And if you noticed problems with my prose, I think that’s great. It means you are well educated and I admire that. But no one needs to be corrected every time they make the slightest error in diction, grammar, spelling or sentence structure. If that was the case, no one would ever get their points across to anyone else. We might as well ditch language altogether, if we cannot accept a few flaws in usage.

Perhaps a line should be drawn somewhere, though. If we can take any word and use it any way we want, we change the meaning(s) of so many words that we never get our message across, and we might as well ditch language. It is with this perspective, which is not unique, that I argue against anything being very unique.

Language developed over many millenia, and I would guess we humans have always found it quite useful. Why else would we still hold onto it as a tool? Word definitions are vital for an understanding of what is read or heard. It is therefore problematic when usage of a word strays from its original meaning. It is as if 250 000 words are not enough, so we keep making new ones, and changing the old ones.

Too many variances of a definition breeds confusion, and that can mean a word that is used more often becomes less useful overall. To my point then: I argue that unique, as an adjective, should always and only mean one of a kind, and having no equal. Being close to unique is not the same as being unique. I have a hard time with the concept of a singer having one of the most unique voices in Canadian music, for example. Is it that the singer has a sound like few others? Perhaps it is that the singer has a talent like few others. Maybe the intent is both of those, or something different. I take issue with the phrase most unique because it imparts nothing usable as a descriptor. Modifying unique with adverbs seems somehow more compelling, but in fact it is an overused construct which defines nothing.

Without a definition, there exists no meaning. If something has no meaning, we might as well ditch it from the language. So please do, and get back to the one meaning of the word from the Latin unicus, which is only, single, alone of its kind.

There exist many arguments in favour of varying degrees of uniqueness. I say they are wrong. Not a little wrong: Wrong, as in not correct. That is my opinion, but feel free to keep it in the back of your brain as I tear apart one such argument due to its flaws, rather than because I have something against its author; I don’t.

Monty argues that an eight-foot-tall concert pianist is more unique than the only six foot fellow in a group of peers. Sorry, Monty, but that is not how it works. The eight-foot-tall brilliant concert pianist may be unique in some or many ways, but he is not more unique in any of those ways. He may be a rare creature with such height and brilliance behind the keyboard, but rare is not unique, it is uncommon. If what you mean to say is he is uncommon, then say just that. Unique does not mean uncommon. That is, it never used to have that meaning. Today when you look it up, the third meaning is just that. It is that because it has been overused in that manner for so long that lexicographers have conceded to that meaning so dictonaries could still be considered authorative on matters of common word usage.

That makes it confusing. Instead of using unique, one must now use one of a kind to mean what unique is supposed to mean. Can we not just use rare when that is what we really mean? Maybe a singer’s voice is so well honed you cannot help by be moved by what you hear. There are many people with extraordinary vocal talent, so the concept behind unique does not apply; Not even a little.

Monty feels that math nerds are the only ones who should bother sticking to the original meaning of unique. Strike one: How you feel about something is irrelevant to the facts of the matter. Then Monty states that something having just one thing like it is pretty darn close to being unique. Okay, I think we can all agree on that point, because what he didn’t say is that it was extremely unique. And that’s good, because that would be the overused, nonsensical way of using unique. But that is strike two for Monty because he is now sitting on the fence, and a waffling argument is a weak one.

Concluding, Monty says Unique can have lots of modifiers. That’s what adjectives do: they modify nouns. He is partially correct. Adjectives modify only nouns. In every instance in his article, Monty uses unique as an adjective, not a noun. Credibility failure there, and that’s the third strike.


Players vs. Pretenders

Everybody has to rant sometimes, do they not? I need to rant.

The backstory is very brief. I recently started learning about and deploying virtual machines. The more I learn about these things, the more I want to know. In wanting to know about my options, I have been exploring VirtualBox from Oracle, vSphere ESXi from VMware, and the entry from Microsoft, Hyper-V Server 2012.

I know there are others, but my path is my whimsy. Just for reference, both Hyper-V Server 2012 and vSphere ESXi are so-called bare metal virtualization products, while VirtualBox is a type of hosted virtualization product. These are the two different types of hypervisors, also known as VMMs. Microsoft and VMware also have hosted hypervisor options.

VirtualBox

I really like this free product for a lot of uses. Chief among them is having the ability to run operating systems that are customized for various purposes, without having to reboot my computer to switch between them. I have one for video conversion, with myriad codecs and transcoding software littered all over the place; I have another for anything .NET related, because I find .NET to be just a whole lot more bloat that I can handle on a bad day; and I have one for Internet surfing that is isolated from my main machine so that I can surf anywhere, and click on any link, and not care what happens as a result.

Any hypervisor offers the same impunity whereby I could completely destroy a perfectly good installation of Windows (or another OS) and not worry because the fix is simple. As each VM is completely encased in its own file, I can just copy a backup of that file over top of the wrecked version, and start merrily destroying it all over again in minutes.

The reasons I like VirtualBox so well are the price (it is free), it is generally very stable running on top of my Windows 7 system, and it has enough power-user features, like raw disk access, powerful network adapter options, and passthrough for USB devices and the like. I really enjoy the fact that my main personal computer can be used for the tasks I normally perform at the same time as it can be hosting one or more VMs.

VMware vSphere ESXi

There are things hosted hypervisors can never excel at. In most cases where high efficiency saves loads of money, native or bare metal hypervisors are the only reasonable tools. VMware brought powerful, useful and highly-configurable hypervisors to the PC world first. As the first ones to crack the code to successful hypervisor roles on commodity hardware, VMware has enjoyed leading status in terms or flexibility, efficiency, general utility, and ease of use, among other criteria. Their products are the gold standard in many respects.

I just dug into ESXi and I found it incredibly easy to set up the server, and within an hour of doing that, I had my first Win7x64 guest running on it. I do not consider that bad by any stretch for a first time user of ESXi. What turned me on to ESXi was a visit to a datacenter where an acquaintance of mine is the guru of all things virtual.

The tour blew my mind because of how flexible the whole setup is, and how well-tuned it is for saving money. Using VMware products throughout, the center is wholly redundant but at the same time very efficient. The virtual servers number in the dozens, but they all hum happily along on physical server boxes that are seeing loads of only 40% to 50% capacity most of the time. The virtual servers are automatically consolidated onto the least-utilized hardware repeatedly as the load eases each evening until only a couple of boxes are left powered up for the overnight shift. When traffic starts to pick up as the sun rises, the resting boxes are again powered up, and the virtual machines are load-balanced across all the physical boxes once again.

Did I mention that all this virtual server migration is live, and completely transparent to anyone acessing them? This is old hat for virtualization professionals, but for a greenhorn like me it was eye-opening, and I couldn’t wait to get knee deep in it to learn more; So now I am, slowly.

Hyper-V Server 2012

I use Windows Server 2008 R2 on one of the servers at work. It has the Hyper-V role installed, and the Hyper-V Manager. I briefly played with a couple of virtual machine guests on that server, and it was fairly straightforward and seemed to be at least as useful to me as VirtualBox. In short, I liked it. It comes with Windows 2008 Server (and newer versions) so in a sense it is not free like VirtualBox, but there is a free alternative.

It is called Hyper-V Server, it is a bare metal hypervisor, and you can download and use it for free. That, friends, is where the joy ends.

If you were to ask me I would suggest that Windows operating systems are pretty easy to set up and use. I was confident that the newest and greatest version of Hyper-V Server (2012) would be a breeze. It’s Microsoft, after all, and they have been around the block a few times, making silly mistakes all the while, but fixing them and trying not to repeat history with each successive endeavour.

Hyper-V Server 2012 is in fact easy to install. It takes a long time to download, and much longer to install than ESXi, but it is no more difficult to get running. The real challenge comes after you install it and get it running on your hardware. What then, you ask?

Then, says everyone who knows how bare metal hypervisors work, then comes the task of installing guest machines on top of the hypervisor. When you have guests running, you get real work done.

With ESXi, you get a screen that tells you where to download the server management tools from right after the hypervisor boots. It is a web page, and the web is easy.

Wanna know what Microsoft Hyper-V Server 2012 gives you for help when you finally get it booted? Not a lot, honestly. No real hints as to how you are to get your other computer to configure the Hyper-V Server remotely. I used this thing called the Internet, and searched this information highway called the World Wide Web, and I found some convoluted methodology for installing and starting something Microsoft calls RSAT for Windows 7.

No easy executable setup file here, folks... just warning you. Anyway, it was not rocket science to get RSAT set up and running, but it was convoluted, and that was my first clue. I should have heeded that warning, tucked my tail between my legs and never come back. I urge you, dear reader, to consider just such a course of action.

I was somewhat determined to see how powerful and useful Hyper-V Server 2012 really is, and how well-integrated it must be with the Windows operating systems, and how coherent and conformant it must be with the ease-of-use goals of all modern Windows experiences; I was convinced that the setup procedures would be well worth my time.

I didn’t get any guests installed on my Hyper-V Server 2012 box. I could not get RSAT to talk to the server. Both my Windows 7 machine and my Hyper-V Server 2012 machine were sitting happily together on the same subnet. Both were gleefully telling me that I was joined to the same workgroup. Hyper-V Server 2012 even told me which IP address it had, so I was certain to find it when I needed it.

Wouldn’t you know, you cannot connect to a Hyper-V Server 2012 from a Windows 7 machine using RSAT and an IP address?

Now, step back a moment. If you know that you need to visit a store located at 7433 Bula Drive, New York, NY, and you go visit one of those online maps web sites, you can literally type in that address and get directions to go directly to that store, without the hassle of passing Go and though you should like to, you will not be collecting $200. You will, however, just get there, as you hoped you might.

Why on earth and in the name of all that is holy and just can Microsoft not get it through their thick-as-ape skulls that GUIs are about the user and NOT the programmer? Why can I not specify an IP address when I go looking for a Hyper-V Server 2012 machine to manage? Why can I not get a nice setup.exe for the RSAT snap-in which sets everything up for me?

Why, I plead, can RSAT not just bloody well FIND the server that is sitting on the SAME SUBNET and joined to the SAME WORKGROUP on its own? Why is the Quick Start guide to setting all this up harmoniously over at Rajeev Mehra’s blog so detailed, yet still unfinshed? Is it because he could not get it to work before he had to step away from the keyboard to save his sanity?

That is where I sit on the Hyper-V bare metal experience so far; Deftly in the middle of slit-my-wrist territory because in 2013, there is no excuse for the kind of contortionist movements one must endure to get two products made by the same group of geniuses to peacefully co-exist. These same geniuses made Active Directory a real powerhouse in the enterprise world, yet they still cannot see the forest for the trees.

I shared my frustration with a colleague today, and he summed it up so eloquently and using so few words that I could only agree: It makes you aware of who the real players are, and who is just pretending.


Prosaic Perfection

There are simply too many rules to the English language for us all to be masters of it. The more I learn, the more I enjoy the intricacies of the rule set, but there does need to be a simpler way to understand some of the rules.

I do not wish to presumptuous—I am far too often and it always gets me into trouble—but I have a suspicion that you’ll not immediately find the flaw in the following sentence.

For my family and I these nearly-forgotten, funny-shaped ears of corn are worth the effort because we grow it, dry it, pluck it and pop it ourselves, and we therefore know where our popcorn comes from.

Don’t worry if you didn’t spot it: there was a period of nearly 36 years prior to my learning this one, and (don’t mention it to her) my last grammar instructor also flubbed this one.

The sentence above should begin For my family and me rather than the way I wrote it. The rules are complicated, but you can correct your own work by simply removing one of the subjects (either my family or me in this case) and re-reading the sentence to see if it is correct. The following sentences are both correct:

  1. For my family these nearly-forgotten, funny-shaped ears of corn are worth the effort.
  2. For me these nearly-forgotten, funny-shaped ears of corn are worth the effort.

Some people think that because other well-respected and powerful people always use the word I (no matter the context) that it is not only acceptable but expected. I say context is important, and so are rules: 2 plus 2 will always equal 4, so stand up for your correctness.


Critical Thinking Is Important

I received a phone call from someone I did not know. Reluctantly I spoke to this lady who was pleasant on the phone and offered me a free energy savings evaluation for my home. I took her up on the offer; It might save me money, right? At the least, I should learn something about energy savings from this experience.

Now, in my tiny parcel of the planet, all the government rebate programs for energy retrofitting have ended. There are no more give-aways of everyone’s tax dollars so I can save money on my heating and cooling costs. Every dollar I might put into energy retrofitting would need to come back in savings before I die; Wouldn’t you argue the same?

So I gave a nice man some details about my home: I told him it is about 45 years old, that I keep the heat at 20 degrees Celsius during the day (19 degrees at night) and that I have not done any energy-saving renovations since buying the place. He asked what my natural gas and electricity costs are, and whether I use air conditioning in the summer—I don’t… it doesn’t work worth beans, but that’s another story.

He was a patient sales person, seemingly devoid of any high-pressure, in-your-face kinds of tactics that I vehemently dislike. So when he got his numbers all penciled-in he got out his calculator. Then he stopped and asked if he could inspect the attic for the amount of insulation and possible mold issues. Sure, I answered. He got out his ladder and went to work.

A few minutes later he invited me to have a peek. He had taken a measurement of the thickness of my attic insulation — 19 centimetres, it is — and inspected the perimeter for proper baffles. The good news is that there are no visible signs of mold colonies. The money-making err, bad news is that I should have 41 centimetres of attic insulation, and baffles that keep the air flowing freely through my attic vents.

Back at the calculator, I am informed that I am wasting more than $600 annually because Heat rises; most heat is lost through the attic. Averaging everything out, the salesman tells me I should save $50 per month by spending $2000 on increasing the thickness of my attic insulation to 2010 standards. It all sounds good to me. Does it sound too good? Is there something I am missing?

I thanked him for his time and sent him on his way with explanations of not having the money right now, and that if I had another monthly bill at this time I would go bananas. He left without complaint, and I could then ponder the details without wasting his time.

So for a measly $2000, which if all goes well I would recover in energy savings in a mere 3.4 years, I could be paying less for heating and cooling for as long as I am in this home. This retrofit would work out to fewer than $40 per month if I chose the payment plan, and I would be saving $50 per month. What’s not to like? Being suspicious of too-good-to-be-true offers, I had asked if there was any interest charge to go along with the monthly payment plan: Yes. You’ll pay double, in the end. That still can make sense if that kind of lump sum is hard to come by. After all, if the cost is doubled, the only thing that changes is the payback period; it doubles as well, to 6.7 years.

Then I pondered further. At one point during his visit, I had asked the salesman about the heat loss calculations. I understand that nothing can be done about the windows, I began, and that the walls are too costly to retrofit. So if I am reading these figures correctly, the loss through the attic is, what, 80 percent? I was assured I had read into his report correctly.

My pondering continued all the way to my second home: my basement office space, where my computers keep their cool. The Internet is such a wonderful resource that I don’t think I could do without it.  Chart showing the diminishing
returns associated with increasing insulation thickness in an attic I ripped this telltale chart from a 1975 document entitled Optimum Insulation Thickness in Wood-Framed Homes by A.E. Oviatt, from the USDA Forest Service General Technical Report PNW-32. The document itself is an amazing effort, but this graph really pinpoints one of the answers I was seeking. In short, anything over the current thickness of insulation in my attic will not affect my heating costs as much as I was led to believe. Looking toward reality, I noticed that Union Gas in its Wise Energy Guide brochure (June, 2010) states that the attic may account for 5–15 percent of a home’s heat loss. That’s a far cry from the estimated 80 percent during the sales pitch.

Looking again at the graph, for fun let me assume that the difference between my current 7.5 inches of attic insulation and the 2010 standard of 16 inches will net me a U value difference of 0.01. If you look closely, I think you will agree that even that may be a bit generous. If 7.5 inches has a U value of 0.0375, then my heat savings would be on the order of perhaps 27 percent. Multiply that by the worst-case amount of heat loss via the attic in the first place (15 percent) and my realized savings might be 4 percent.

Reality check: If I am wasting over $600 annually due to heat loss through my attic, how is it that my gas bills add up to only $540 for a year’s worth of heat? Further, if this is so good for me and the planet both, why would it take 92.6 years to pay it off with all those energy savings?

I do not begrudge folks for trying to make money; everyone needs a livelihood. I just do not believe that a salesperson should throw down false figures and use unknown calculations to give their spiel an air of legitimacy before taking my money. It’s not snake oil. I am quite confident the service would have been performed well and I would indeed have thickened attic insulation to 2010 standards with the best [blown-in] product on the market — the business is rated A+ with the Better Business Bureau, after all. It’s just that, when push comes to shove, my great grandchildren will be middle-aged before any such work pays for itself due to the energy savings. So really, what’s in it for me?