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Friday, May 22, 2015

Toptal (Sort of an Interview Request...)

So after fifteen years a major system I wrote is finally shutting down.  If you live in the USA and have an insurance card from a health care provider software I have written has touched your life.  This system has produced enough insurance cards for virtually every human being in the country to have several.

The client, who I shall not name here, got into the business around 2000.

They took delivery of a digital press sold by a client of mine and needed software to run it effectively.  At that time converting a print file in PostScript to something the machine could actually process took a very long time.  So long that it would take a year to rasterize the work that needed to be completed in a single month at year end.

Around that time I had recently created a product called pdfExpress.

pdfExpress was a C++ application that manipulated PDF files as data as opposed to rasterizing them.

At the time I created it a previous version, which was linked to Adobe Acrobat, was all that was available to manipulate files for printing.

One day, while sitting on the couch at home, I realized that the content stream of PDF was actually just well structured data that could be manipulated directly, so long as the rules of PDF were maintained.  Really, PDF is just a programming language, sort of a constrained PostScript.

I had spent about five years writing software to automatically convert programming languages, or more correctly, source code for applications, from one computer language, e.g., Fortran, to other languages, e.g., C.  (The company was called "Lexeme" and founded around 1985.)

It struck me that this was doable for PDF (though not PostScript for complicated reasons).  PDF was designed as short hand for PostScript.

I built the initial version of pdfExpress in about two months using a collection of C++ code I had written as well as a lot of new code.

(pdfExpress is the subject of these two patents:

US 6,547,831 - Method of Generating Documents Having Variable Data Fields

US 7,020,837 - Method for the Efficient Compression of Graphic Content in Composite PDF Files)

We needed pdfExpress to perform manipulations for projects like the insurance card system because Acrobat was too slow and licensing issues prevent it from being used as a server.

We set up a test run that normally took about a minute to do with Acrobat (the precursor was an Acrobat plug-in).

I hit "RETURN" and the DOS prompt came back instantly.

My associated and I gasped!

"Shit, something is wrong," he said.

"Yeah, it must have died," I replied.

We poked around and couldn't see a problem.

We tried it again.

Same thing.

My associate said "see if there's an output file."

We did, and there it was, correct!

We knew we had a winner.

In the end the C++ version outperformed Acrobat plug-ins about 1000:1.

So I've spent a long time at this - some 15 years.

In that time pdfExpress has grown to several hundred thousands of lines of C++, split off into sub-applications (like this) and branched out into other things entirely.  In this same time, at least according to Moore's law, the number of transistors in the processor of the computers I use as increased by a factor of about 16,000.

For the last few years I alone have been supporting the insurance card system which continues to emit tens of millions of cards per year.

Unfortunately, though, the printing devices are now too expensive when compared to things like smart phones, i.e., you've seen the GEICO pig showing the cop his insurance card.

So printing is dying and finally, after fifteen years, taking my client with it.  Oh, they'll still be around for a while making credit cards but Apple Pay, phone apps and the like will eat away at that as well.

So that leaves me with nothing major to do on the programming front.

(Yes, I still have other activities to keep me busy but not doing what I was born to do...)

So I found the company called Toptal.

Its a pool of folks who find people like me things to do rather than me trolling around trying to entertain myself on the software front.

So pdfExpress is sort of my calling card into Toptal (I don't know if they will like me or not but I am writing this to tell them about why I would work for them).

There's still which talks about some of this, but its not really very current.

I am interested in working with Toptal because to me it seems like a really good idea.  I am not great at fitting in in a corporate world and this company will (hopefully) eliminate the need for me to do so.  But I think I can do things that would make a relationship between us a, as they say, "win/win."

I also don't like cold calling nor do I like bidding against folks who live in a different world where the cost of living is 1/1000th of what it is here.

I haven't talked to them (Toptal) as of yet but presuming they pass muster with me I should like to think I pass muster with them.

I figure that pdfExpress was competition with the corporate Adobe Systems.  It (I) beat them in my little niche.  So perhaps I can swing a gig with them.

(Actually a relative of mine interviewed there but went elsewhere.  So I know a bit about them.)

I've outlived printing but not programming...

Seriously, though, I like the idea these guys are presenting.  I've created plenty of "disruptive" technologies over the years - pdfExpress being one.  At the same time I have always mentored people along the way.  I've converted playground installers into master programmers.

So guys, give me a chance!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

"Drugs" With Dangerous "Adverse Side Effects" Support Anti-Vaping

Here's some Point/Counterpoint on the benefits of e-cigarettes.  MedPageToday is a pro "big pharma" site with lots of stuff related to commercial products and "traditional" medications.

Counterpoint: Does the Risk of E-Cigarettes Exceed Potential Benefits? No

Point: Does the Risk of E-Cigarettes Exceed Potential Benefits? Yes

"... These studies have established that e-cigarettes are associated with increased nausea, vomiting, headache, choking, and upper airway irritation ..."

The usual bad things to be found out about vaping.

As if this is actually "bad" compared to "big pharma" products like Welchol advertised on the site.

And here's the "full disclosure" for Welchol.  Excerpt below:

"Cardiovascular adverse events: During the diabetes clinical trials, the incidence of
patients with treatment-emergent serious adverse events involving the cardiovascular
system was 2.2% (22/1015) in the WELCHOL group and 1% (10/1010) in the
placebo group. These overall rates included disparate events (e.g., myocardial
infarction, aortic stenosis, and bradycardia); therefore, the significance of this
imbalance is unknown."

How interesting.

Two point two percent (2.2%) had "...serious adverse events involving the cardiovascular system..."

Double the rate of the placebo group.

Twice as many serious adverse cardiovascular events.

Well, you decide which is "safer."

Friday, May 1, 2015

Facebook: Supporting "Tobacco Harm" By Banning Paid Political Speech

So along with this graphic I submitted the following text to Facebook as a "boosted post" - this means you pay money to have it shown to more Facebook subscribers.  The text was as follows:

"Vaping Political Action

Last night ---- played host to a meeting of many of Western PA's vape shops at --- in Cheswick, PA.

The purpose of our meeting was to discuss Vaping Advocacy.

Vaping Advocacy is basically the activity of "fighting for our right to vape" through political means.

As many of you know the state of Pennsylvania is proposing a 40% tax increase on "vaping" in this years Pennsylvania budget (June 2015).

We don't want this tax to pass. Not this year. Not next year. Not ever.

And neither should you.

Why? Because vaping works for people who no longer smoke: it helps them to continue not to smoke.

(Many of our customers, many heavy smokers, have not smoked a cigarette in years.)

We, as shop owners, want our legislators to know that taxing vaping will make it harder for people to continue not smoking.

A lot of useful information was exchanged: how the Pennsylvania legislative process works, what can be done to contact our legislators, what shop owners should know about talking with their legislators.

This was a meeting for vaping businesses, but the same ideas apply to you, the "vaping" consumer.

In order for vaping to survive both individual vapers - whether they buy from a shop or on-line - as well as shop owners must become more politically active.

We will be posting more in this in the weeks to come.

If you want to learn more please contact our shops or post here.

Note we are not "advertising" any products of any kind.  The shop, not me personally, sponsored the ad so its promoted under the shop name.  The ad is not about vaping equipment, tobacco, or anything else.  Its about voting, tobacco harm reduction and contacting legislators for the purpose of political change.

As expected the response was the usual:

My ad is apparently "advertising tobacco, cigarettes, or related accessories."

Now this is hard to imagine and, of course, clearly wrong.

Note under "I Vote" it says "Support Politicians Who Support Tobacco Harm Reduction."

So, by banning the ad Facebook apparently believes in what?  Increasing Tobacco Harm?

After all if you ban ads promoting Tobacco Harm Reduction you must, by basic logic, support the opposite.

There are many forms of Tobacco Harm Reduction including NRT (sold without prescription in stores with child-attracting fruit flavors no less).

Apparently Facebook is allowed to limit political speech.  As you can see from Wikipedia there is no such legal right to limit this form of speech.  Clearly this is not hate speech, incitement, false information, or anything else that falls under Constitutionally recognized exceptions to the First Amendment.

How can this be justified by Facebook?

Facebook has pages like this:

Clearly a point of view you may or may not share, but legitimate none-the-less, even if don't support the legalization of pot.

By the reasoning of Facebook Martin Luther King would be denied the right to create a political ad about racial discrimination.  (Perhaps because with a 1950's Facebook racial equality was not yet legal.)

How interesting is this...?

I am calling Facebook out on this.

Its wrong.

Its illegal.

We have a right to use Facebook to organize and discuss political meetings.

From Facebook's own Guidelines on Advertising Policy:
  • Ads promoting blogs or groups that exist to help connect people whose interests are related to these products are allowed as long as the service does not lead to the sale of any tobacco or tobacco-related products. Ads for anti-smoking campaigns, e-books, counseling services for smoking addiction and rehabilitation programs or facilities for smokers are allowed.
  • Acceptable: "Meet with people around the world who have a taste for cigars"
  • Unacceptable: "Buy cigarettes and e-cigarettes here today!"

We (the collective "we") use Facebook every day speaking about vaping.  If I want to pay to promote the notion that vapers vote I see no reason Facebook can or should stop it.

Nor do they have the legal right.

EDIT 1: Though people claim that Facebook can limit whatever they want in terms of posts I have to disagree.  If the post follows their rules I see no reason for it to be blocked.  Since posting this others in vape advocacy have pointed out that their posts (on advocacy) are being blocked as well - though they can get past it by complaining.

Facebook and similar use contractors in foreign (to the US) countries to "censor" (see this link: ) there are others if you google.

There is also much legal activity around what a "carrier" can censor.  (See 1989 Once you get to a certain point, which I think Facebook has with like 1.23 Billion (with a "B") active daily users they are not allowed to have such casual treatment of speech.  Effectively FB becomes like a telephone line where everyone using it has to have reasonable access regardless of what the talk about.  Imagine, for example, if you were talking dirty to your significant other and an operator came on line and said your call had to be disconnected because of obscene content.

Talking about voting for vaping is not obscene content.

EDIT 2: More recent info on "censorship" -