Elliott C. Back: Internet & Technology

Travel to Manaus, Brazil is Dangerous

Posted in Crime, Travel by Elliott Back on October 3rd, 2012.

Since American Airlines was offering super cheap roundtrip flights to Manaus, in the Amazon region of north Brazil, I figured I’d jump on it! I booked myself a nice $550 NYC JFK-MAO roundtrip, and thanks to a promotion, I’ll earn double miles on the MIA-MAO segments both ways! I figured this would be awesome! First time in Brazil! Travelling by myself! Not speaking Portuguese! However, a few things happened that made reconsider adventuring here again…

One of the almost-shanty-town areas that are common in Manaus

I got Robbed at Knifepoint…

The first day I was toying all the sights of Manaus. Generally felt pretty safe. Walked all over; posted photos to Facebook.

On my way back a pitter-patter of feet became a pressure at my back, I turned around ( that probably caused the scratch ) and there’s a scrawny campesino with a knock-off kitchen knife telling me he wants my bag, in Portuguese. I’m backing up and telling him in Spanish I have money and going for my wallet. But our mutual incomprehension opens up a gap, and 12 feet is too far. I turn and bolt while he stuffs his salad carver into his pants. Since I assume I must now be in a bad area I head up the opposite direction and go home. It was 3 in the afternoon, and people on the street 50 feet away.

I put some iodine on my scratch which wasn’t too bad, and promptly started chain smoking. I think I was robbed around R. Cel. Sérgio Pessoa and R. Miranda Leão, so keep your wits about you when you’re in the Mercado Municipal area.

Debit Card Skimmer Fraud

I took out some cash at the airport, and came back to find the following charges made after my flight had departed:

09/26/2012  	ATM Transaction	NON-CHASE ATM WITHDRAW 519173
09/26 TECBAN PR BR Real 1000.00 X 0.4939526 (EXCHG RTE)
 + 15.00 (EXCHG RTE ADJ	$514.88

09/25/2012  	ATM Transaction	NON-CHASE ATM WITHDRAW 403240
09/25 BANCO DO BR Real 1000.00 X 0.4934100 (EXCHG RTE)
 + 14.80 (EXCHG RTE ADJ	$508.21  

09/24/2012  	ATM Transaction	NON-CHASE ATM WITHDRAW 500187
09/24 BANCO DO BR Real 1000.00 X 0.4941900 (EXCHG RTE)
 + 14.83 (EXCHG RTE ADJ	$509.02

It seems that whoever cloned my card at the airport had been taking out the maximum 1000 reals until I shut them down. I actually don’t know whether it was a skimmer, a hidden camera, or even an entirely fake ATM. When I tried to get cash at the airport, only 1 of 4 ATMs worked, so there are at least three others that could have been entirely fake.

Terrible Airport Service

And it wasn’t AA’s fault! I know they’ve been getting press for seats and things falling off their planes, but in Manaus, it’s the local airport workers who will delay your flight by over an hour, without giving you any updates. And for some odd reason they took my lighter, even though it’s allowed according to TSA regs. They also have a bizarre screening protocol where they ask you about any of your new electronics (to see if they’re fakes containing drugs or bombs), so I told the agent about my new Samsung Galaxy Tab 7.7…

We were told “be here from 9:30 – 10:30 strictly” to go through an immigration check. However, waiting to board our plane, we saw people coming through even after the plane was scheduled to take off. So I blame the delay on the airport’s inability to do its job and take off on time, even if it means some could be late.

Not much to do?

There are really two main historical buildings in Manaus, which are the Teatro Amazonas, an old-style opera house/theater, and the Centre of Justice which has an ancient, no longer used, courtroom. The two buildings are nearly adjacent, so if you see one, you’ll see them all! I can even save you the time by posting a quick photo:

If you want to drink, there won’t be a proper pub/bar like you may be used to. Most cervecerias serve you a large bottle, a glass, and a beer coozie (a frozen sleeve to keep your beer cool). While this is imminently enjoyable in the Brazilian heat, you won’t be finding a lot of cocktails or beer on tap.

Crime is ridiculously high

I think, now, every traveller needs to google their destination city + “crime”, as I found Rio drug trade turns Amazon city into crime capital from just a year ago, only after I returned. Some choice quotes:

Rio’s drug conflict has claimed tens of thousands of lives since the 1980s; in Manaus the drug trade is also taking its toll. A growing local market for cocaine has triggered a rise in homicides. Official figures show the number of murders rose over by 9% this year.

If you do go, bring a travel buddy and stay safe. And enjoy an Amazon safari, which is fun, and visit the CIGS Zoo or the Bosque da Ciencia. TripAdvisor has a pretty great list. And the Caesar Business is a great hotel.

PeopleSoft Sucks: Why Enterprise software creates more problems than it solves

Posted in Computers & Technology, Cornell University, WTF by Elliott Back on September 9th, 2008.

I came across PeopleSoft Hinders Review of Aid Applications, an article describing how my Alma Mater’s implementation of Peoplesoft is causing delays in processing financial aid applications, which contains an amazing quote:

12 days after classes started, about 750 students’ financial aid applications are still being processed due to complications from the implementation of PeopleSoft. PeopleSoft replaced JustTheFacts software and now manages students’ personal, academic, bursar and financial aid information.

“The PeopleSoft system is much more labor-intensive than our previous financial system,” stated Davis. “We estimate that it takes three to four times longer to review and process a financial aid application in PeopleSoft than it did in our former financial aid system.”

Well, “This can’t be that bad,” I thought and headed over to the student management system to check it out for myself. Then, I got hit by an ancient-looking ugly, non-functional GUI:


Clicking on any of the links that might interest me (grades, transcripts, etc) led me to the following “nice pages”:

The back/forward buttons don’t work

Whoah, where did this come from?

Another random error

Yep, Peoplesoft definitely sucks. And, I don’t blame Cornell for it–except for making the original bad decision to migrate from a working, if not archaic, system. Nay, I blame Peoplesoft (recently rebranded as Oracle Peoplesoft. Here’s some juicy quotes from other IT professionals:

  • “It’s a horribly designed piece of crap. They don’t use referential integrity *and* they duplicate data all over the place in the database. Their UI is like something out of Windows 1.0 days.” – Joel on Software
  • “It is the single worst example of web-based software I have ever seen. Ever.” – Jason
  • “It’s web browsing in the 19th century. Lots of backing up and clunky navigation menus laden with far too much non-intuitive information.” – Dee-Rob
  • “the syntax, which seemed arcane at best and totally unusable at worst” – John

A cute Facebook group, Cornell must be held accountable for Peoplesoft issues, and another Cornell story, New CoursEnroll Software Causes Distress, Difficulties, explains how the initial rollout was also fraught with difficulties:

Yeh said that although the system was marked by a number of problems, nearly 3,200 students out of the approximately 3,700 who needed to enroll were able to do so successfully. Course requests that were not approved before the system went down were entered into the system automatically.

[T]he preparation for the replacement began back in 1995 when Cornell administrators began watching how other schools used PeopleSoft. Cornell and company began to develop the new program together. Yeh did not know how expensive the program was to develop.

The moral of the story? Sometimes rolling your own software is better than buying and adapting. Especially for giant applications.

Why Sarah Palin Sucks for VP

Posted in Politics, President, Religion, Science by Elliott Back on September 7th, 2008.

Sarah Palin, after winning John McCain’s VP nomination, has been in the news a lot these days. Photoshopped and real pictures showing her in her beauty pageant glory days have been flooding the web, while incriminating Youtube videos exploit her poor camera performance and public speaking ability. Everywhere I look, no one can take her as a serious contender for the Vice Presidency.

But that’s not why I think Sarah Palin sucks. I don’t care about her looks, her messy personal life, or her pregnant teenage daughter. I care about what she’s done, and what she’s willing to do, in office.

Sarah Palin: Eminent Domain

Sarah Palin, while mayor of Wasilla (1996-2002), decided to build a $15M multi-use sports facility as her legacy. However, when the city failed to close the $125k deal on the land where she wanted it built with the Alaska Nature Conservancy, they went ahead and began to build anyway. On someone else’s land. Sara Palin then invoked Eminent Domain law to sue the developer who held title to the land, Gary Lundgren, who eventually won the court case, and settled with the city to the tune of an additional $1.7M.

Sarah Palin sucks because she is willing to try to steal private property from its rightful owners for her own good.

Sarah Palin: Book Bans

According to Time, Sarah Palin, “asked the library how she could go about banning books” because some of her constituents believed they used “inappropriate” language. Sarah Palin also threatened to fire the librarian, Mary Ellen Baker, for not giving “full support” to the mayor.

Update: the following list of books Sarah Palin wanted banned, courtesy of Liveleak, looks similar to every other list I’ve seen of books the Christian right has wanted banned.

Update 2: The above list is a complete fabrication, a copy-paste job of an older list of books banned over time. Some fact checking shows that books late in the Harry Potter series are on the list, which came out after Sarah Palin’s inquiries into book-banning. The truth of the book-banning incident is apparently a rhetorical inquiry into how the librarians would react were she to issue the order… still scary…

Sarah Palin sucks because she is willing to censor anything that doesn’t fall into her narrow set of beliefs.

Sarah Palin: Creationist

According to The Lang Report, Sarah Palin in 2006 said in a gubernatorial debate, “Teach both. You know, don’t be afraid of education. Healthy debate is so important, and it’s so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both.” In spite of courts having (fortunately) ruled that teaching creationism is a violation of the separation of Church and State, electing someone with Sarah Palin’s beliefs will inevitable continue the Bush legacy of eroding America’s scientific prominence.

Note that the education arena is not the only area where Sarah Palin’s policy may have been shaped by her religious views. Her Pastor Kalnins believes in the “end times” or “last days,” and that Alaska may soon “be the refuge” for those fleeing the apocalypse of the world. These beliefs are absurd.

Sarah Palin sucks because she’s willing to compromise educational policy for her own personal religious beliefs.

Sarah Palin: Homophobe

I’ll submit the following quotation from The Bilerico Project, which lays out the facts fairly well:

Palin said she’s not out to judge anyone and has good friends who are gay, but that she supported the 1998 constitutional amendment. Elected officials can’t defy the court when it comes to how rights are applied, she said, but she would support a ballot question that would deny benefits to homosexual couples. “I believe that honoring the family structure is that important,” Palin said.

Sarah Palin sucks because she believes homosexual couples are inferior to heterosexual ones.

Sarah Palin: Racist

Sarah Palin’s attitude towards native populations living in Alaska, or black Barack Obama, indicates that skin color matters to her. The LA Progressive article Palin Is “Racist, Sexist, Vindictive, And Mean” sheds some light:

“Sambo beat the bitch” may be everyday language up in the bush. Whether it – and the outlook, politics and worldview Palin reflects when she says such things in public – should be part of a presidential campaign is another thing altogether. The comment says as much about McCain as it does about Palin, and it says a lot of things about Americans who overlook such statements (as well as her record) and vote anyway for McCain.

Sarah Palin sucks because she refuses to treat those she views as different as her equals in politics. America is a complex country, full of differing cultural groups and interest; only a president sensitive to the variety of man can successfully navigate the American melting pot.

Sarah Palin: Anti Sex Education

Sarah Palin oppose the “right to choose”, and advocates abstinence-only sex education. The Huffington Post quotes her saying, “The explicit sex-ed programs will not find my support.” This is a problem, because abstinence-only sex education is futile and ineffective, and has been thoroughly debunked. Reading statistics like “by age 18, about 71 percent of U.S. youth have had sexual intercourse” would lead one who cares about America’s youth to teach them safe-sex, not tell them a “no sex” message that will be ignored.

Update 3: For the other side of the story, you should read Newsweek’s great Sliming Palin: False Internet claims and rumors fly about McCain’s running mate story. Although I feel many of their anecdotes are just trying to muddy the waters, no issue in politics is black and white either, and this certainly deserves the “fair and balanced” treatment. Isn’t life just shades of gray?

Update 4: Check out what Matt Damon thinks of Sarah Palin:

Matt Damon Rips Sarah Palin –
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