Hashemian Blog
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November 13, 2009

Madoff's Programmers

by robert hashemian @ 11:55 pm
Filed under: computers,financial

Bad reputation. Lawyers have it, used-car salesmen have it, priests and clerics have it. And now computer programmers? That's what I thought when I read about the two programmers working for Bernard Madoff's Ponzi investment firm being arrested and charged with fraud.

It seems that their skills were put to good use by fabricating reports and statements for clients and the SEC, making them look legitimate. According to the story, they both knew that they were engaged in shady work, and they both had complained about it. But in return for a mediocre bonus from the company they'd stopped complaining and had silently continued manipulating the numbers and generating phantom reports.

As a programmer myself this story gave me a pause. What would I have done? I'm not the blackmailing type, but would I have just drawn a salary and turned a blind eye? Would I have raised my concerns, not to extort, but out of moral obligation or at least out of concern for my own complicity and the possible punishment? Or would I have left the company without leaking a word, just to save my own skin?

Businesses ask many things of their employees. Some are blatant violations of ethics, but some others fall into gray areas. I wonder if these two programmers could have avoided the hot water if they had kept their mouths shut and just did what they were asked. The fact that they raised concerns only to bury them after payoffs has certainly been a factor in what they're facing now.

At any rate, I have a good feeling that if Madoff's scheme hadn't turned into a high profile case that it is today, these programmers would have never been implicated. There's just too much public fury and too few targets to go after. I mean how many programmers at Enron have suffered the same fate? As far as I know, none.

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Madoff's Programmers

by robert hashemian @ 11:55 pm
Filed under: computers,financial

Bad reputation. Lawyers have it, used-car salesmen have it, priests and clerics have it. And now computer programmers? That's what I thought when I read about the two programmers working for Bernard Madoff's Ponzi investment firm being arrested and charged with fraud.

It seems that their skills were put to good use by fabricating reports and statements for clients and the SEC, making them look legitimate. According to the story, they both knew that they were engaged in shady work, and they both had complained about it. But in return for a mediocre bonus from the company they'd stopped complaining and had silently continued manipulating the numbers and generating phantom reports.

As a programmer myself this story gave me a pause. What would I have done? I'm not the blackmailing type, but would I have just drawn a salary and turned a blind eye? Would I have raised my concerns, not to extort, but out of moral obligation or at least out of concern for my own complicity and the possible punishment? Or would I have left the company without leaking a word, just to save my own skin?

Businesses ask many things of their employees. Some are blatant violations of ethics, but some others fall into gray areas. I wonder if these two programmers could have avoided the hot water if they had kept their mouths shut and just did what they were asked. The fact that they raised concerns only to bury them after payoffs has certainly been a factor in what they're facing now.

At any rate, I have a good feeling that if Madoff's scheme hadn't turned into a high profile case that it is today, these programmers would have never been implicated. There's just too much public fury and too few targets to go after. I mean how many programmers at Enron have suffered the same fate? As far as I know, none.

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November 11, 2009

Online Radio and Traditional Media

by robert hashemian @ 10:10 pm
Filed under: internet,music

I don't remember exactly when or why, but up until a few years ago traditional radio stations were barred from broadcasting online. I believe it had something to do with advertising rules. But then the rules were apparently relaxed and one by one the stations started broadcasting online in addition to the airwaves.

Still, internet-only broadcasters such as Pandora, Slacker or Last.fm have had a competitive edge. They have large cache of music, they play few or no commercials, and they can adapt to their listeners' tastes. But as the music industry has begun to demand royalty payments, the internet-only stations have had to adapt by playing more commercials and/or charging fees. Previously I wrote about my defection from Pandora to Slacker for that exact reason. Now I've left Slacker for traditional radio and so far have been happy.

What convinced me to make the switch? When I found a radio station that played the kind of music I like. A few weeks ago while driving to Hartford, CT to run a half-marathon, I was flipping through radio stations when I stumbled on an alternative music station (104.1 FM WMRQ, Hartford, CT) that kept me listening song after song. I thought what a shame that I couldn't get the station where I live or work.

Fortunately it wasn't long before I found that the station also broadcasts online and I've been listening ever since. Sure there are commercials and DJ interruptions and the selections are not perfectly tuned to my taste (pretty close though), but listening is as simple as clicking on a link, no logins and no fees. In fact internet-only radio isn't perfect either and they play more commercials these days anyways.

My experience speaks to a bigger issue here. To borrow a quote form Mark Twain, the reports of the traditional media's demise are greatly exaggerated. The arrival and propagation of the Internet has not necessarily just given rise to the upstarts to the detriment of the traditional companies. On the contrary, it has given the old media new means of serving their audience and also reaching new ones. The Hartford radio station is one such example whose listeners aren't necessarily within the sphere of its antenna's influence anymore.

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November 1, 2009

NYC Marathon

by robert hashemian @ 10:43 pm
Filed under: running-hiking

What a nice day to be a part of the biggest marathon event in the world. Only thing is that I wasn't there. I did register for the New York City Marathon a few months ago but I was in the pool of some 60 thousand people who were turned down. No hard feelings though. I know there's a limit on how many people are allowed in and managing 40 thousand runners is a no small feat.

So in sympathy, I decided to run a mini-marathon of my own in my own hometown today and I logged 16+ enjoyable miles. Ok, I admit that running solo on back roads isn't exactly like being a part of a big event, but for me the fun is just the same, maybe even more.

With the solo runs there are no rules and no crowds. It's just me and the road. I get to choose the time, the distance, and the routes, and I can change them as I go along. There's definitely something liberating about setting your own rules and it costs nothing. The challenge, the therapeutic effect, and the satisfaction of finishing the course are still there. No, there are no official times, no like-minded people to hang with, no medals and no parties at the end. But for me running means a lot more than that.

How many activities can give one that kind of return with a pair of sneakers and a road? And as for the NYC marathon, maybe next year. Meanwhile, congrats to all of today's participants.

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October 29, 2009

Chrome Wishes

by robert hashemian @ 10:22 pm
Filed under: google,internet,web

Google ChromeFor a creature of habit like me it was a difficult move, but I have finally migrated from Internet Explorer v6 (IE6), and not just to v7 or v8. As long as I was making a leap, I went out on a limb and started using Google's browser, Chrome. While occasionally I find myself back on IE6 for a few sites, Chrome has become my default surfing window into the world wide web.

Chrome comes in 3 flavors, known as channels, Stable, Beta, and Dev. I took the middle ground and settled on the Beta channel, what I would call the Goldilocks version, not too safe but not too risky. For the most part I like this browser and as new versions go online and are automatically downloaded, it just keeps growing on me.

Chrome is fast and clean. It launches much quicker than IE or Firefox and it has an impressive response time, specially for the Web 2.0'ish pages that seem to be everywhere these days. And the so-called omnibox (combined search and URL bar) is an ingenious feature. But for all of its goodness, there are still a few areas that it falls short. Here are my top 3 pet peeves with Chrome:

• View source - Like other browsers, Chrome does allow one to view the HTML source of a page but not correctly after a form is submitted. This still stymies me at times, until I realize that when viewing page source, Chrome appears to make a fresh request to the URL rather than just display the current content. This results in displaying source code that is inconsistent with the page that's resulted from a POST operation, such as a form submission. This bug needs to be fixed.

• Image properties – Just about all browsers allow users to get the properties of an image (URL, size, dimensions, etc.), generally via a right-click and selecting "Properties". There's no such capability in Chrome. The "Inspect Element" menu item just loads the page source and positions the cursor at the declaration of the image tag. Hardly helpful for obtaining image properties.

Referrer settings – This one can be generalized into allowing users to tweak low-level browser features. Chrome has a number of nice commands like about:memory and about:dns, but where is about:config, as in Firefox? One of the browser features I like to disable is the Referrer. I know this could lead to some usability issues on some sites, but I despise giving sites any information about myself including where I'm arriving from. Chrome doesn't allow any such tweaks, but it should.

Ok, I know Chrome's source code is out there and I could edit and recompile, but really I'm not that desperate :)

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October 20, 2009

Arizona Not-Quite Hiking

by robert hashemian @ 5:26 pm
Filed under: health

Last week I was at the Astricon show in Glendale, Arizona (near Phoenix), running the registration system. Not being one to pass up a chance for hiking, I had arranged to stay an extra day to hike the White Tank mountains. There was one problem though, I didn't have transportation to the park.

After some thought I hatched what I thought was a good plan, getting there on a mountain bike. The plan was to pedal about 15 miles from the hotel to the trailhead, hike one of the trails (about 8 miles) and then return on the bike and finally donate the bike to a charity before flying back home.

Getting the bike was the easy part. I bought a relatively cheap one from a nearby Wal-Mart and after making sure that it was road-worthy I had the hotel store it for me until later. By the way, being on a bike brought back some good memories of my childhood and that feeling of freedom one gets on a bike.

On the day of the hike I stocked my backpack with water and food and I was on the road by 7 AM. It was predicted to be a hot day but at that time the desert air was still relatively cool and pleasant. As I biked my way closer to the park, I started to hear the thunderous sounds of fighter jets, apparently from training flights at the nearby Luke Air Force Base. By then I had biked nearly 8 miles and decided to pull over the side of the road for a quick drink of water and some food. That's about the time when my plan unraveled.

As I got ready to jump back on the bike and pedal away, I noticed that the front tire had gone flat. On closer inspection, I saw that the inner tube had slipped out and wrapped tightly around the front brakes. It was a hopeless situation. Even if could untangle the mess, and even if the tube was undamaged, I had no air pump to bring the tire back to life, and I was in the middle of nowhere.

Standing by the side of the road and considering my options, it quickly became apparent that I really had no options. I had to scrub the plan and started the journey back to the hotel on foot, leaving the bike behind.

Sometimes you have to see the good side of an adverse event. While disappointed that I couldn't make the planned trek, I was treated to a decent air show with the fighter jets buzzing overhead, and sometimes flying low in tight formation. And instead of hiking the park, I ended up hiking by the roadside in the desert heat all the way back to the hotel. At least I had enough water.

Plans sometimes fail. I might have mitigated the problem had I brought an air pump along, but no point dwelling on that. The way I see it, I got a good aerial show and still had a decent hike. And if I make it back to this place, I'll be sure to be more prepared, at least for a flat tire.



The hapless bike with the inner tube tangled


looking back at the forlorn bike and the unhiked mountains just beyond

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October 11, 2009

2009 Hartford Half Marathon

by robert hashemian @ 10:06 pm
Filed under: running-hiking

Seems like it was only a few days ago since I ran my last half marathon. Well, it actually was only a few days ago, and I found myself running another one this past Saturday, the ING Hartford Half Marathon. Actually this is really a marathon race but it incorporates a half marathon as well as a 5-K races.

For me this was the first time that I was in a relatively major city running event. It felt quite different than my hometown's half marathon. There were a lot more runners, more spectators, more sponsors and it had a festival feel to it. Also the entry fees were higher. The organizers had done an impressive job managing the event. From street closures, to security, to feeding runners after the event, everything ran smoothly as far as I could tell. It was also the first time that my time was measured by a sensor on my shoe rather than the finish-line clock.

I'm sure the city of Hartford gets some good business and recognition from the race. I've lived in Connecticut for over 25 years and this was the first time I actually got the chance to walk around the capital and see it up close. It has a lot of history and culture to offer.

Aside from all the fun and festivities, Hartford had the good omen for me to set a personal record of 1:53:53 (8:42/min pace) for the half marathon. A good friend who was also running the half marathon set his own personal record in this race. Results here.

For me nothing can replace the fun of running in my own hometown, but Hartford proved itself to be a great enough venue for me to be looking forward to next year's race. Who knows, by then I may finally be mentally ready for a full marathon.

Me (left) with my friend at the 2009 Hartford Half Marathon

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October 5, 2009

Half Marathon

by robert hashemian @ 10:11 pm
Filed under: running-hiking

Yesterday I ran the annual half marathon in my hometown of Ridgefield, Connecticut. It was the second time for me running a race after my herniated disc injury nearly 2 years ago and rather unexpectedly I did better than last year.

My results came in at 1:55:15 which made it a 8:48/mile pace. That's my second best time in the past 5 years running the race and it's nearly 20 minutes shorter than my last attempt.

I can't say if I owe the better results to a more recovered back, or perhaps just a psychological inducement as I move further away from the date of my injury. Of course a herniated disc will never heal and I still suffer some of the symptoms like pain and tingling. That’s something I'm always aware of.

I hadn't trained at all for this upcoming event, but I had been going on longer runs on nicer days and I'm sure the extra distance also gave me the extra boost. The weather also helped. While humid and warm, it wasn't uncomfortable. I did have to slow the pace a bit on some of the uphill sections but never down to a walk. Still I was surprised as I got to the finish line and saw the clock under 2 hours. I'll see how I'll do on my next half marathon race, a mere 4 days away.

Ok, enough about me. The winner of the race was a 39-year-old Kenyan native. Not much surprise there. When I Googled his name, I landed on a few articles describing how African runners arrive in the US, fan out, and make a living running (and winning) in various local races. It seems that some people are miffed at this practice, citing unfairness. Mind you, the African runners are career athletes, some of the best, even in their own native countries, with the physique, genes, and time for training only a few could match.

Of course for me, who would never even get close to their levels of proficiency, it doesn't really matter, but it could dissuade some of the locals from participating and that could hurt the events. I can understand both sides, but as long as no performance enhancing drugs are involved, I can't argue against it.

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September 23, 2009

From Pandora to Slacker

by robert hashemian @ 10:09 pm
Filed under: internet,music

SlackerSo finally the 40-hour free listening limit per month on Pandora caught up with me. I had expected it already but still when it happened, I started to think about ways of wiggling out of paying the $1 for the remainder of the month or the $36 annual fee.

It's not so much about the money. I know nothing is free, but having grown up on FM radio I pay my dues by listening to commercials, not cracking open the wallet. In the end I opted to give Slacker a try. I chose the classic rock station and so far I'm impressed. The music is good and there is good variety. There are more commercials than Pandora, but I don't mind that.

Being a loyal kind of a person, I didn't make the switch lightly. I'd been listening to Pandora for over a year after switching from the Launchcast service by Yahoo. I had Pandora trained pretty well to play my kind of music, and recently I had noticed that Pandora was playing more variety which was a good thing.

I realize that Pandora has done its best to strike a balance between keeping its audience and paying its dues to the music industry, but in the end I decided that Slacker was a better option for me. I hope Slacker can continue with its current model to keep the music free and support itself on commercials. Maybe some day Pandora can do the same and win back some of the defectors, but for now it's goodbye to Pandora and hello to Slacker.

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September 22, 2009

Iran Kidney Trade

by robert hashemian @ 9:47 pm
Filed under: financial,social

KidneyI already knew that Iran is the only country in the world where the sale of the kidney is not only legal, but government sanctioned and subsidized. When I sat behind my desk to watch the documentary, Iranian Kidney Bargain Sale, I already knew what to expect - sort of.

There were 2 things that affected me quite deeply:
1- The human faces and stories behind the kidney trades.
2- The tough ethical and moral questions that creep up on the viewer.

Here you have two desperate and nearly hopeless people, each clinging to the hope that the other party can resolve their devastating problem. One gripped with such destitute that has decided to sell a vital organ, the other in urgent need of a kidney to regain a semblance of a normal life.

As I watched the movie, I kept wavering between siding with the donor and the recipient. I would condemn the Iranian government for allowing the kidney trade, only to condone it a few moments later.

This is not a simple black and white matter. It's one big gray area. Is it fair for people to sell their kidneys for as little as $3,000? Is it fair that potential recipients continue to haggle over price, as if buying a car? And yet, is it fair that some of the lives saved could have been lost without this trade? Or perhaps barring the legal trade, unscrupulous black market operators abuse and intimidate potential donors at their most vulnerable times, the way it's done in India or Pakistan?

To be fair, the government does seem to have strict policies in regards to who can donate and who can receive a kidney. Among the rules, they must both be Iranian citizens (eliminating potential abuse by wealthy foreigners) and they must pass rigorous medical exams to qualify for the procedure.

I would imagine that the little money the donors receive could hardly resolve their problems. In most cases they would be back at their original financial position, minus a healthy kidney. The recipients seem to benefit the most from the trade, that is if the transplants are successful.

In the end I still couldn't make up my mind on whether allowing this practice was ethical. Given all the parameters, I think the kidney trade in Iran is somewhat beneficial to the society, because it does assist in saving lives. Not just the lives of the recipients, but also the lives of the donors who would otherwise be at the mercy of the black market operators.

Then again my opinion couldn't possibly carry that much weight, since I haven't walked in the shoes of the people on either side of the kidney trade.

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