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Ulrich Drepper

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Life's small annoyances [Aug. 20th, 2005|08:59 am]
Ulrich Drepper

Waiting for the summer time change expert

After congress passed the energy bill containing the lengthening of the "summer time" period hysteria spreads. "Journalists" (and I use this term loosely) trying to create panic by getting from us (the company, not directly from me although I usually provide the answers) work on how bad things will be. People on various mailing lists also react in sheer panic. It is only two more years until the change takes effect. Will there be enough time.

None of these people apparently ever paid attention to world events, or the smaller headlines in those newspaper or news outlet sections. Timezone changes are commonplace. We handle them frequently, far too frequently. This year the underlying database has been updated already 11 times. Sometimes government give the people warning times of only a month or two (certain states in Brazil come to mind). And still a) we get the data out quickly enough and b) nothing really bad happens.

Of course there are a few possible problems. If the system really, really depends on correct timezone data and the data is not available, bad things could happen. But this will happen only if a) the system is not supported by anybody who cares (individual or vendor) or b) if the system is not designed to accommodate updates. The latter category includes probably all those lousy embedded systems which people with no clue put together on a dime. In either case, people get what they deserve.

All that is missing now are the summer time change experts, akin to the y2k experts. And then the movies about those people. Office Space 2 anybody?

Math can be annoying

Recent the propane company servicing our tank sent some hardcopy spam about the possibility to lock in the rates people have to pay for the propane. And it is not even their effort, they are probably too clueless to do this themselves. The "offer" is from a company in IIRC Arizona which specializes on this kind of work. People fearing the rising energy costs pay for an option which caps the price they pay for the next year. I.e., if the price is higher than the agreed upon cap, the cap is in effect. If the price is lower, the real price is used. Sounds familiar?

This is the same kind of derivative traders sell at the mercantile exchange in Chicago and similar places. And since the company didn't mention any price in the offering letter the risk for them is minimal. They will sell the option to the consumer for the price du jour. They can determine it by some not too complicated math: the Black-Scholes formula. Just punch in a few numbers into the program one can probably download somewhere, add 10% or more for your own profit, and sell the option to the hapless customer.

I would really be interested in knowing how many people fall for this. And I say fall because something very, very much unforeseen must happen if the option should do something good for the consumer. One of the inputs is volatility. Yes, energy prices are rising but when calculating the option ones includes this in the volatility measure. And since there is not much (visible) competition to sell these options to consumers the latter have no comparison to see what premium the used safety margin and volatility number add.

Commercial Quality?

Like many other people I quite regularly watch freshmeat.net for announcements of new programs or versions thereof. One things which always disturbs me is if these non-free programs (mostly by small sops or individuals) are advertised as commercial quality. Is this supposed to be something positive? At least when I think about commercial software I think of the few programs of the DOS days which I used: the OS (OK, it was more a boot loader), Borland's compilers, ... In this context commercial grade has definitely no positive associations. These were very buggy programs where the user (me) had absolutely no possibility to make them work. One could only use them if none of the many bugs get in the way. The same is probably true these days, from all the comments I see and get.

So, if you try to pitch your program, don't use any of these terms. They more likely than not work against you.