Wednesday, December 31, 2003

The alternative to “Interrupt Driven” involves “Polling”:

(In a comment yesterday, Misnomer asked: "And how long did you get to work for him, not doing assignments like that? " I worked for him about two more years. From his point of view I was an excellent employee, doing everything he asked me to do. Obviously I had to do most assignments, to make this work; I bet that's djQuickTip's strategey also.)

It’s possible to design computers so that they do not have to be interrupted by external events. Instead, a computer system can be programmed to check, just frequently enough, whether events have occurred that must be handled. Such “polling” can be controlled better than software that responds to interrupts, but only when the occurrence of events, and the behavior of all of the computer’s software, are very well understood. Most computers have to deal with uncontrolled conditions, so they are interrupt driven.
It’s different for human beings. Yesterday I illustrated the risk of letting interrupts drive your life. Humans benefit from polling, checking responsibilities regularly to decide what’s important. While polling we reflect on our lives and can change priorities or even dramatically revise our responsibilities. Computer systems are not introspective, so polling has less value for them. I sure wish I remembered to poll more often...

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

“I’m Interrupt Driven”:

I once worked for a manager who, giving me an assignment, said “And remember, I’m entirely interrupt driven.” I knew what he meant. Computer hardware interrupts whatever the computer is doing when an event happens that needs handling. For example, if you tap a key on the keyboard, most computers will interrupt their current calculations to process your keystroke. My manager was telling me that he never made any attempt to keep track of his responsibilities; he just handed off assignments and waited to be interrupted by his subordinates about progress. I took merciless advantage of him from then on. If he gave me an assignment I didn’t like, I just never mentioned it again, and he never noticed.

Whew, the comments are back!

I'm glad we didn't lose them.

Monday, December 29, 2003

Oops, where are my comments?

I've been using enetation in the UK for my comments. There is a problem with this website at the moment (12/29/03). They are in fact unfindable. I hope this is temporary! I enjoy all your comments...

Will you take your secrets to the Grave?

In our culture, deathbed confessions, not to mention jarring comments by relatives in their last illness that threaten to unravel the world we remember (you know what I mean: Your mother wasn’t in the army, she was in jail for manslaughter) are well known. Can we assume that most people unburden themselves (given the chance) before the end? Or do many people proudly take their secrets to the grave? An interesting point here is that we have a warped statistical sample. We’re all familiar with real and fictional cases of deathbed confessions, but how could we be aware of the cases where people don’t tell? Personally, when the time comes, if I find I’m the last person available to pass on some dread knowledge, my lips shall be sealed.

Sunday, December 28, 2003

Accountants and Astrophysicists:

(This isn't a political rant, although it may start like one; please bear with me.) You've probably heard about the accounting scandal involving Parmalat in Europe. This company claimed to have billions in assets that did not exist. One of the tricks Paramalat played was to have a subsidiary with a bank account of $4 billion in the Cayman Islands. Paramalat's auditors could not audit this subsidiary, and the subsidiary's auditors played according to different legal rules. Paramalat's auditors could not discover that the $4 billion did not exist.

Many feel that the solution to such tricks is to make financial black boxes disappear. There should be uniform accounting codes everywhere, and uniform authority so that the auditors for a company can see everything. Personally I feel this is an unrealistic solution. The world is not a homogenous place (as in milk), and it will take many years (if ever) to adopt uniform standards. Uniform international authority seems even further away, or altogether impossible.

But the auditors, the accountants, should have learned from 20th century physics. Scientists in the last 90 years have, again and again, used the tiniest shreds of evidence - along with intelligent reasoning - to peer inside black boxes and figure out the workings of things we cannot see. From Planck's work on black body radiation to modern theory about such things as quarks, neutrinos and even strings, scientists have reasoned from tiny bits of info to theories that can be tested and found consistent with what we know about the universe.

No one has been more ingenious at this than astrophysicists, who have developed working models of all sorts of things we cannot observe directly from the meager observations that can be made on planet earth.

Now I really think that accountants, who work with financial data as much as anyone, must have developed their own brilliant techniques for peering into black boxes. To note one example in the case of Parmalat, many people quckly noted that that the fictitious $4 billion account in the Cayman's wasn't putting out the correct radiation; or to put it another way, it wasn't being used to pay down debt by a company that was borrowing heavily.

If accountants and auditors are just as adept as physicists at analyzing things they can't peer into, then the auditors of Paramlat were incompetent, rather than in need of new accounting laws. And if by chance accountants are not used to the sort of peering that scientists can do, they really ought to learn.

Friday, December 26, 2003

New York City Subway Riders, it’s Definitely time to panic!

New, reorganized and (they claim) improved subway lines will soon be open in NYC, and the city is racing to get many maps, handouts, signs and documents ready for the changes. The New York Times has seen the new documentation and printed a few excerpts, which I quote below from the story “Revised Subway Map (and Alphabet) Awaits Riders in '04” by Michael Luo, December 25, 2003:
"The Brighton line, currently the Q, formerly the D, and soon to be the B, will now go up Sixth Avenue."
"The W, currently the only line to Coney Island, will now terminate at Whitehall Street, but will be replaced by the D, which used to be where the B will be."
An experienced rider commented, “If you take the Q line, which used to be the D line, and call it the B line, which is now the W in Brooklyn, that could confuse a lot of people…”
Dear Blog readers, I am not making this up! It may be time for New Yorkers to learn an old Boston song. The chorus begins: Did he ever return, No he never returned, And his fate is still unlearn'd. He may ride forever…

Thursday, December 25, 2003

Electronic Voting – more of a mess than you may think:

Bev Harris’s website, Black Box Voting is a fine place to view information about the ills of the electronic voting industry. Among other things, she’ll probably convince you that a paper trail is still not enough. You may have heard recently that Diebold bought a company in which a computer-fraud felon was working on voting machines. Diebold said that he left the company when they bought it.
Bev Harris says: “An embezzler who specialized in sophisticated alteration of records of computerized systems was programming our voting system, and also had access to the printing of the ballots, and ties to the private company that sorts King County absentee ballots. … had a key to the computer room, the passcode to the GEMS computer, and 24-hour access to the building. [He] sometimes urged upgrades to new, uncertified software right before elections. …
Diebold told The AP wire that [he] left the company when they took over, but in fact, Diebold retained him as a consultant …”
She also explains that Diebold seems to have bought and used voting machines containing his programming. This person’s “criminal sentence for twenty-three counts of felony Theft in the First Degree forbids him to handle any checks, now that he has been released from prison.”
Harris concludes: “I don’t believe there is a certification program in existence that can protect us from inside access. We need criminal background checks and robust, fraud-deterring audits.
Everybody out of the pool, we need to disinfect it.

And that’s just one story at Black Box Voting.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Scrambled Eggs, a new way:

Beat a whole tablespoon of good mustard into two eggs, then scramble them. The mustard flavor will be surprisingly muted, but the eggs will have a remarkably velvety texture.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

I’m sorry, I didn’t get your message:

This year the world discovered a new, polite (well, not very polite) way to ignore an email. Consider this: you get an email from a friend or colleague that obligates you to respond or do something you’d really rather not do. At least, you’d like to put it off. So you forget about this email. A few days later your colleague follows up: “I sent you an email! Didn’t you see it?” This is where we move a little deeper into the 21st century. You respond: “I never saw your email; our spam filter must have eaten it.” Hardly anyone likes to feel that their earnest efforts have been identified as spam, but they’ll probably direct their annoyance at this piece of fictive software, rather than at you. I’ve gotten this response a number of times lately, and frankly, it always makes me suspicious.

Monday, December 22, 2003

I am unable to forward SPAM!

The very fine company I work at has an automated system for reporting problems to its help desk. I can hardly believe it myself, but I just reported this problem:

I am unable to forward SPAM!

You would think this is wholly a good thing, wouldn't you? However, this company expects us to forward all spam we receive to spam@internalCompanyEmailAddress.whatever, where the spams are analyzed in order to block future spams. There really is a problem, because the company's mail system can deliver spams to me, but something goes wrong when I try to forward certain spams for analysis. I shall spare you the bloody details.

Sunday, December 21, 2003

Degrees of Separation (a way to study them):

It’s well-known that emails are not generally secure on the internet, and can easily be examined en-route. Someone could build a giant database of who sends email to whom, all around the world. (Ignoring spam could be an issue here). Then, take many pairs of people in this database, and figure out how many people separate them. For example, if A exchanges mail with B, and C exchanges mail with B, then A and C are separated by one indirect person. A study like this would be far from perfect (the sample is certainly skewed, and we would be studying email addressees, which do not map uniquely to people), but the results could be quite enlightening.

Friday, December 19, 2003

Let’s Discuss Free Will and Quantum Mechanics (did we have a choice?):

Samuel Johnson said: “All theory is against the freedom of the will; all experience is for it.” Theory is against it, because thinking logically, we can see that the future action of every particle and iota in the future is determined by their state in the present; in theory, if we knew the entire state of the universe at present, and could calculate well enough and fast enough, we could predict the future. Right?

Well… regardless of whether your views about free will are rationalistic, mystical or religious (or even: willful), it’s worth knowing that modern science no longer clearly supports the derivation of the future from the present. In other words, Newtonian physics, but not quantum mechanics, supports the idea that “All theory is against the freedom of the will.”

Quantum mechanics mounted an attack on this old idea in the early 20th century, but – as usual – it’s taking a while for the general public to absorb this bit of science. When Isaac Asimov – a writer whose science fiction is well grounded in knowledge of science – was writing the Foundation and Empire books in the 1950’s, he should perhaps have known better. (A driving principle in these books is that a statistician was able to make deterministic predictions of events that would happen hundreds of years later.)

The basic problem is that, in quantum mechanics, some of the actions of tiny things are determined randomly. Therefore the present cannot fully predict the future. Einstein did not accept this randomness, and quipped, “God does not play dice with the universe!” The converse claim is that events that physicists think are random, are actually controlled by other things we haven't discovered (yet). This is called the “hidden variables” hypothesis. Now it happens that random data behaves differently than data produced by any kind of non-random, hidden function. Experiments around 25 years ago showed that the “hidden variables” hypothesis does not match what we can observe in our universe; the random hypothesis does.

Free will has not been granted a full pardon. If you Google Johnson’s quote, you can track down many fascinating philosophical takes on the issue. Roger Penrose and others have theorized ways that the human mind can take advantage of the workings of quantum mechanics to express free will. But many theorists continue to view free will as pure illusion.

Blaise Pascal once wrote, "If Cleopatra's nose had been shorter, the whole face of history would have been changed." I like to think that her nose was shorter.

Thursday, December 18, 2003

A nosebleed really concentrates peoples’ attention:

I once worked for a guy who remained incredibly calm as he dealt with awful crises. If you said, “We lost the current version of all our source code, a customer is screaming that we have to fix a bug right now, and a crazed black bear is trying to kill anyone who walks out the front door,” he would just start calmly collecting information and deciding what to do. Finally I asked him how he managed to keep his calm.
“I wasn’t always like this,” he said. “When we were trying to get this company started, we had a great idea for a computer system that would save Corporation X tons of money. All they had to do was fund the development and we would be off and running. The trouble was, four executives at X had to approve buying this system from us, and none of them could remember what a computer was for, or how it would help them, for more than ten minutes at a time. {This was a long time ago, when most people knew a lot less about computers than we all do now.} So one of them would approve the project, and then another would forget what it was about and back off. Finally we got them together in one room, and we still couldn’t get them to understand the value of our system all at once! I was getting angrier and angrier that these fuddies were blocking my career and shooting themselves in the foot just because they couldn’t understand us for more than a few minutes. I got so angry, my nose started to bleed. I got up in front of the room, mopping my nose with a handkerchief – it was bleeding a lot – and I said ‘let me explain the system one more time.’ People really listen to you when you nose is bleeding heavily! I went through the proposal, they all got it and all four signed the contract. Then I went into the hospital for six weeks while they made my nose stop bleeding; I had burst an artery.”

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

And So Ad Infinitem:

You may have been reading sad stories like this one lately about prostitution and underage sex among avatars in the massively multiplayer online Sims Online game, like this story and this story. Those who will pollute paradise for profit can apparently go to any extreme to ply their noxious and profitable trades. I do have some feeble advice for the Sims Online players: the game seems remarkably flexible in its ability to allow people to create things, so why not create a game-within-the-game that will be the sort of grunge-free world that Sims Online once was? When the prostitutes find their way into the game-within-a-game, just move on to the game-within-a-game-within-a-game, and so on. The goal is to stay one little step ahead.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

(not the) Quick Getaway:

On the old Saturday Night Live TV show, father Guido Sarducci occasionally acted as an interviewer. He always asked celebrities one particular question: If you could be any animal, what would you be? I imagine this dialog:

father G.S.: If you could be any animal, what would you be?

his ex-excellency S.H: A mole.

Monday, December 15, 2003

Cognitive Dissonance:

Saul Steinberg once drew a cartoon of a man giving instructions to a second man. The instructor is pointing towards the necessary direction with his finger. He’s also carrying a gigantic hand that is pointed in the opposite direction. The cognitive dissonance is delightfully jarring. I don’t know if that carton is online, but here’s a relevant sample of Steinberg’s work. I thought of that cartoon this morning on the way to work, when confronted by a similar bit of dissonance. A truck from the Product Foods Group Company (about which I know nothing), drove past me going the other way. You can see their logo, a breezy flying “PFG”, at this site. The point is: I saw the truck whizz past heading behind me, but the logo letters seemed to be flying in the opposite direction, trying to stay back with me.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

You are right, batman!

For almost two years I worked in high finance. I was the hired gun to an extremely clever English gentleman with awesome contacts. We went all over solving amazing problems and creating new ones for a complex project with considerable profit potential.
From time to time I would come up with a fine insight during one of our tete-a-tete conferences, and he would exclaim "You are right, Batman!" I particularly treasured this occasional compliment until I realized that, since he was an Englishman of a certain age, he was not calling me a super hero. Rather, he was saying "You are right, batman!" Here's what a batman is.

Friday, December 12, 2003

Unions against Carols:

Unions in Europe have decided that it’s not good for store workers to listen to hours and hours of repeated Christmas songs. Are they afraid of getting Cochlear Constantinitis Syndrome? Here’s one report about the story.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

There are hardly any nice things to say about shaving, but here’s one:

If you forget to shave your face in the morning, and instead you shave much later in the day, you’re in luck, because: shaving your face later is unlikely to keep you awake at night. Have another cup of coffee while you think about this.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

The last word on the Moon:

A full moon is useful, it’s nice and bright. (Seventeen f-stops less than the sun, for you camera addicts.) But let’s face it, the moon isn’t going to melt any unwanted snow.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

The skill of: Anticipation

Anticipation relies on the brain’s incredible ability to recognize patterns, situations, images and events that have happened before, and to bring to your awareness what you already know, about what you’ve recalled. For example: I used to play volleyball. There’s that moment when the opposing playing jumps up to send the ball zooming over the net and you have to somehow get to it and return it. I would concentrate deeply at this moment, and after a while I found that I knew where the ball was going to go before it was hit – I would match the spiker’s precise actions with my memory of those actions happening previously. In fact, I often knew better than the spiker himself! If he was repeating a previous mistake, say, mis-hitting off center, I recognized this pattern and he did not.
Basketball players use anticipation to aim accurately. Follow-through is incredibly important in shooting baskets. Follow-through means that as the player lets go of the ball, he or she sees the ball in relation to the basket, compares this image with thousands of similar previous shots, and makes tiny aiming corrections with the fingertips while letting go of the ball; the player has anticipated where the shot would go, both uncorrected and corrected.
Anticipation enables the automobile driver to recognize situations where an errant car will become a problem, or traffic speed will suddenly change, and start to react to it before it happens.
Anticipation is not just a visual thing. It works with all your senses.
If you want to make better use of your own anticipation skill, all you have to do is concentrate deeply in those situations where you hope to use it; once your brain has collected enough info, the rest is instinct.
Next time you watch your favorite sports stars, try to figure out what combination of anticipation and reflex skills they possess; most world-class stars are better at one that the other.

Monday, December 08, 2003

Fast Reflexes, or … What?

You watch that tennis player scamper across the court to retrieve, miraculously, a hard hit and well-placed ball. That athlete must have great reflexes, right? Well probably. Most people (in real life as well as sport) rely on two very different skills that tend to get lumped together: reflex and anticipation. Everyone knows what quick reflexes are: something happens and then you react to it very, very quickly; faster than most people if your reflexes are good. Anticipation is the ability to realize what is ABOUT to happen, to start to react to it BEFORE it happens. I’m painfully aware of this because my reflexes are very slow, but my anticipation skills are excellent. I’ve done pretty well in several sports, and my defensive driving skills rely heavily on my ability to concentrate and anticipate. So how does anticipation work, anyway? (It’s not magic, and I’m not making it up.) I’ll explain tomorrow.

Sunday, December 07, 2003

I've been working with computers too long. Much too long:

Yesterday (Saturday, 12/6/2003) the New York Times had an editorial page headline: Too few Hires, still. "That looks interesting," I said to myself, as I read on to find out why there weren't enough high resolution computer screens in use. Surprisingly - to me anyway - the piece was about jobs and unemployment.

Friday, December 05, 2003

Did you turn the Heat off this Morning?

It’s snowing this morning and I had to drive a few miles, so I made sure to turn the heat off in the car and just use the windshield wipers. I have to park outside at work. When I return to my car in a few hours, it’s unlikely to have any of that damn clingy ice on the windshield. A warm windshield melts the snow, which then refreezes into ice; a cold windshield resists icing.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

Staples Update, Ordering Online Myself?

It turns out that from the privacy of my own home I can bring up the same Staples Online ordering screens. I searched for the product I wanted and got 33 hits on four pages. Each page displayed the names of some products, but not their dimensions; and you had to click on each individual item to see its picture. I clicked on maybe ten of the 33 without finding what I wanted. Then, remembering that if I did find the product, it would have the wrong price anyway, I steeled myself to order again in the store.
At Staples, this time I found the product I wanted on the shelves. It was deep behind a more recent batch of the same product; the new delivery uses a different, darker shade of blue (without changing the product code) but fortunately a few of the old ones with matching color remained.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Here’s how computer automation improves our daily lives:

Barry writes up these life-annoyances better than I, but let’s face it, they happen to everyone: I found an item at Staples I wanted to order, in the catalog, not on the shelves. I brought my desire to one of the more senior members of the Staples staff. “Would you like to order it online?” she asked. This sounded good to me. It turned out that I did not get to use the computer to place the order. Most of the work was done by Staples staff.
For starters, I had a catalog number, and online orders are normally done with SKU numbers. After several hurried conferences, the command was found to search the data base for a catalog number. The item showed up, but at a significantly higher price. I pointed out the discrepancy. After more staff conferences, they announced that they knew how to charge me the lower price. I was then invited to fill in my shipping info – shipment is free right now – so I filled in a bunch of fields with data that Staples already has about me, that unfortunately could not be accessed from this program. I then stood by while two Staples people knelt on the floor saying things like “the light is blinking, it HAS to print something else...” Then I was handed confirmation of my order and allowed to pay. My purchase was less than $10, the item will be shipped to my home; one Staples employee spent over fifteen minutes on the order, and other employees were consulted and borrowed during the process. I’m very unhappy about all this; if Staples figures out what I’m costing them, I’m afraid they will not allow me into their stores.

POSTLUDE: The shipment arrived two days later: a box with a volume of about three cubic feet containing some packing material and my shipment (a few cubic inches). The packing list was correct but the enclosed product was not! So it’s off to Staples once more…

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Holes in Traffic:

When you drive on a limited access multilane parkway, you’ve probably noticed that in moderately heavy traffic you sometimes find “holes”, places where there are hardly any cars at all: traffic in front of you, traffic behind you, but no traffic in the hole. You can consciously seek out these holes and stay in them much of the time. Here’s how:
First, to find a hole you should drive slightly above or below road speed. Sooner or later you will fall into a hole.
Second, stay in the hole by sticking to road speed. Resist the temptation to pass or drop back into traffic.
Third, you have to learn to recognize some exceptions! If there is a slow car ahead of you and you match its speed, you will drop out of the hole. That car you have to pass. If several speeding cars catch up to you, resist the temptation to fly with them; let them pass or you will accelerate out of your hole. When cars are driving at different speeds it takes a little experience to see where the hole is, but you won’t find this difficult to learn.
Fourth, eventually the hole will disappear. See step one above.

Monday, December 01, 2003

Bowling for Side Effects:

When your doctor suggests you take a drug, you ask him about potential side effects and medicine conflicts, right? Well while you’re at it, you might also Google the drug. Doctors are human; they may not remember all the indications you should know about. Of course you have to be skeptical about what you read on the web; some very strange web sites will have off-the-wall concerns about some various drugs. NOW: What do you do if you feel the side effects of a recommended drug are, shall we say, interesting? My rule is this: if I decide that taking a drug - and being the unlucky one who gets to suffer the side effect - would make me feel like a stupid idiot, I ask my doctor for something else. Here’s a personal example: I won’t take a drug that warns of possible tendon ruptures. I don’t care how rare this side effect is; I’d feel incredibly stupid if I took the medicine and ruptured something.