Friday, April 30, 2004

Today’s fortuitous typo grants us a favor:

I received an ad from a website that is prepared to tell me what about The Next Boon On The Internet. What boon would you like the internet to give you? I’ll settle for this: All web pages shall display the date of their last update, so I’ll know when I’m looking at a dead web site.

I have a confession to make. After I wrote this item I kept replacing the boon with other boons I wanted even more. I want the Internet to give me at least fifty boons.

Thursday, April 29, 2004

This movie has been modified:

I imagine putting a video tape in my VCR and seeing something like this. Any movie director could make it happen. Think about it:

ovie has been modified.
s been edited to fit your scre

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

What Color are your Status Lights?

Products sold worldwide should conform to a European standard for indicator colors. Intuitively obvious (red=trouble, yellow=warning, green=okay), the standard is often ignored, and I can remember bitter arguments lasting weeks – in a computer design group – about the right color for some indicator lights.

Suppose your floppy drive lights up whenever you read or write to it; would you agree with me that the light should be yellow? I figure you’re being warned that if you pull the floppy out while it's in use, a problem will occur. (Many disagree.)

The power cord on my laptop lights a green light when it has power. That’s fine with me. If the cord is disconnected, my laptop will switch to its battery and not die. But I would prefer the power cord to show me a bright red light when it is receiving no electricity at all. The “no power” warning light that doesn’t rely on batteries is a holy grail of hardware design.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Pile high the Software…

In 1987 I visited the offices of PC Magazine – still my favorite magazine about the home and business computer world – to persuade them to review a product. They took us to their lab, a rectangular room about 60 x 30 feet with work tables all around the walls. The middle of the room was a midden – an astounding heap of floppy disks and software products more than three feet high and eight feet across. There were ten to twenty copies of every popular program on that pile, and tons of less familiar stuff as well. (In those days, a product usually fit on one to three floppies.) It was clear many many salesmen sent freebies to PC Magazine, hoping to get mentioned or reviewed. The staff at the mag might need two or three copies of a new program; they just tossed the rest on the pile.

I looked at that giant pile of useful software and drooled. I don’t think of myself as a thievish person, but I sure wished I could have had ten minutes alone in that room with my briefcase.

Monday, April 26, 2004

No Need to Reply to this Blog Item:

Sometimes I receive a short email note, and I agonize over whether to reply. The writer seems to be completing something, but maybe it would be impolite not to write back “thanks”, or “I got your message.” I worry that if I send a short unnecessary reply, the other person will agonize in turn about whether I expect a reply, and so ad infinitum.
Luckily I have a solution to this problem. I’ll often send an email like this: ”Mr. Plony, I really liked your blog posting on March 17. You expressed something very well that I’ve often thought about. No need to reply to this message.”
I wish the world understood the acronym: NNTRTTM. It would save quite a bit of typing.

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Some headlines are really peculiar:

These headlines are all real but I’m not providing links. I’d like you to marvel at their mystery:

  • Dog finds skull that was likely stolen from crypt.
  • Kangaroo mistaken for giant beaver.
  • Lizard spit drug controls diabetes, weight.
  • Armed robbers steal ox's gallbladder stones.
  • Nervous dragon given acupuncture.

Friday, April 23, 2004

Who ya gonna mail? (Host Flusters):

So you’re browsing a web page and you want to send an email. You feel there HAS to be a contact email address somewhere on this page, but you can’t find it. You even searched the page for “contact.” Now try this: in your browser, click View, then click PageSource (or Source). You’ll get a text window full of abstruse HTML code. Search that text (the search or find command is probably in the edit menu for this text) for these six letters: mailto . This is the html tag that precedes a genuine email address. After you copy and paste, close the source window. Good luck!

Thursday, April 22, 2004

There’s no such thing as a free office:

I moved to a new development group at a large company. They showed me my office, a room about twenty feet square with a lockable door. This is the largest office I’ve ever had, and the only lockable office I’ve ever had. I was amazed! How could they offer such a thing to a consultant? Other people in the group, even managers, had cubes or small offices. Mine was almost the only one with lock and key.

I set the office up with my desk, table and computer just the way I liked it.

Two mornings later, I came in to find my locked door open, and everything moved around to open up a yard-wide conduit under the floor filled with wiring. “How often do you have to open this up?” I asked the workmen. “Often,” they said, "you better leave everything where it is now.” They left an hour later after making quite a racket. Still, it WAS a large office. Better than the office I got at another department of the same company two years later: a hallway 40 feet long, three feet wide, with neither window nor electrical outlet. It was also better than my first office ever at that company, a cube 5 by 7.5 feet, that I had to share with three other people. (I’m not making this up! Since we didn’t know each other very well, only one of us entered the office at a time.)

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

The 20th Century. (See: The 20th Century):

So many earth-shaking things were new in the 20th century. Among other things, this was the self-referential century. We’re now awash in a new kind of writing and humor, in works, sentences and people that cleverly comment on themselves. (“This sSo many earth-shaking things were new in the 20th century. Among other things, this was the self-referential century. We’re now awash in a new kind of writing and humor, in works, sentences and people that cleverly comment on themselves. (“This sentence no verb.”) Like many great discoveries, the delights of self-reference may have exploded out of several brilliant minds at once, but we might reserve a special place for Kurt Goedel.

At a time when others were trying to generalize the whole business of proving theorems in hopes of being able to automatically prove or disprove every valid logical statement, Goedel proved that any logical system containing the ability to count will have theorems that are true but cannot be proved.

But that’s not important now. I mention him because his 1931 proof involved, likely for the first time (ignoring recursion), a hypothesis that referred to itself.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Your own doctor:

Medical plans make it hard to stick with a regular doctor, but consider this ideal: you find an internist somewhat younger than you (won’t retire before you do) with a good reputation. At each visit he or she asks you questions – medical history is still a very important part of diagnosis – and takes the time to review your records for related information. Over time the doctor remembers you, is aware of your medical peculiarities, and will notice whether you really seem changed or ill. It’s worth some effort to have a long term medical relationship with your doctor.

Monday, April 19, 2004

What’s that smell?

Is life too dull where you work? I’ll trade with you. Here’s a snatch of conversation I overheard in the hallway, between a scientist and a site security person:
“As far as the Hydrogen Sulfide goes, that’s not necessarily problem. You can smell Hydrogen Sulfide before it becomes a problem.”

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Quieter Cars, stalking me:

When I was eleven, American car makers started selling cars with much quieter engines. After several near disasters, I realized that this was the case. I then sadly gave up my habit of bicycling through stop signs and intersections without looking to either side, as long as I could hear no car coming.

Friday, April 16, 2004

How Beautiful is our Ugliness:

Edward Burtinsky’s beautiful photographs document just how ugly we can make the earth with our technologies. Check out the Oxford Tire Pile, Oil Fields, and Tailings pages here, at the online Charles Cowles Gallery. "Beautiful ugliness"; not quite an oxymoron.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Yet another Massively Multiplayer Online Temptation:

I’ve been fascinated by massively online games like Sime Online and There and A Tale in the Desert. These games promise an opportunity to live by one’s imagination in a realish but very foreign sort of world. You get a chance to interact with hundreds of other people in the game. The economics of these ventures are fascinating as well, with the prospect of 500,000 or more players paying $10 a month or more to entertain each other. In practice, these games tend not be sophisticated enough to sustain interest over long periods of time. And I’m afraid I would want to spend at least 40 hours of play a week, to make sure I don’t miss anything.

Nonetheless I’ve succumbed to the lure. I’ve given my avatar a handsome look, a background and a few skills, and my avatar has begun to wander among the incredibly open expanses of a massively online game. I’m not paying monthly fees. And I’m not going to get hung up on acquiring stuff (that I would have to pay for). The game pace is “real world time”, so I feel very unhurried, and a few hours a week of play time will be more than enough. I plan to avoid combat and contentious situations. I just want to find some mentors, learn new skills, develop abilities and perhaps eventually mentor other people in turn.
You might be interested in knowing which massively multiplayer online venue my avatar has joined. It’s called: The World Wide Web.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Millions Should Imply Responsibility:

Post- Parmalat and Enron (and many other companies, I’m afraid), I’d like to suggest a simple reform. The people running these companies should have a choice between receiving a salary slightly larger than other employees (the model of Japanese executive salaries for many years), or receiving (as they now often do) obscenely large rewards. Companies justify the giant rewards by claiming that these people are absolutely key to their successful operations. Let’s take them at their word! Why would a company pay me $10 million a year if I didn’t know exactly what was going on? These executives should be required, in return for their golden packages, to sign a statement acknowledging that they know virtually everything their company is doing.

Sunday, April 11, 2004

Boring meetings?

I hope we’ve all had the experience of being very involved in a meeting that needed and rewarded our concentration every minute. But then there are those boring meetings … what do you do about them?

My father played word games with himself for many years. After he learned to make ceramics – an art he enjoyed for many years – he spent meetings devising interesting geometrical patterns that he could use on a hot plate or other ceramic piece. His meeting notes were filled with all sorts of complex repeating patterns.

I have also spent many years playing word games in meetings. My favorite (made up) games require a source of random letters. I usually get a random letter by saying okay, the fifteenth letter anyone says NOW! And Then I listen to what anyone says next. If they hem and haw, I reset the count; if they speak numbers, I start over, since numbers provide too little variation (and too many hard letters). Over time, I’ve discovered a few people with unusual letter patterns. One director of engineering almost always gave me a vowel for his 15th letter; several other managers seem to speak mostly in consonants.

Friday, April 09, 2004


I live in a suburb, but this week I might as well live near a herd of cattle. Spring has sprung, and gardens everywhere near are filling with organic fertilizer. This gardening frenzy will produce beautiful blossoms and plantings in time, so I’m sniffing the ugly air with anticipation.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Water Tub Man!

A Readers’ Digest anecdote from many years ago: a woman asked her young married granddaughter, “If you could have only ONE of the modern conveniences in your kitchen, which would you choose?” The young woman agonized between the fridge and stove, eventually choosing the refrigerator. “I would take running water every time,” said her grandma.
I thought of this because we have a leak below our kitchen sink. The last time this happened, we simply did not use the sink until the plumber came. But this time I realized we can still use sink, as long as I catch every drop of water in a plastic tub and carry the water out to the back yard.
I feel I’m completing an action I began as a boy, visiting my grandmother’s farm, when I was sent to pump buckets of water at the well. I carried water in then, and I’m carrying water out now.

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

How do you calculate time Intervals?

(This item addresses the slighty crazy people among us who keep our clocks a few minutes fast, finding some constructive value in trying to fool ourselves. Those of you who keep the correct time on your clocks can look on in amusement.)
Let's say you keep your car clock five minutes fast, and you want to see how long it will take to get from point A to point B. If the clock says 9:37 at point A, you can remember that. Or, you can say well it's really 9:32 and remember THAT. When you get to point B, the clock now says 10:12. You remember "9:37", so you know for sure that it took 35 minutes to get to B, unless 9:37 is what you remembered AFTER subtracting the five minutes, in which case it only took 30 minutes.

Are you still with me?

You have to be consistent, that's the key. I decided that whenever I calculate time intervals, I remember WHAT THE CLOCK SAYS AT POINT A, not the actual time. I could argue that this way is simpler, but what's more important is that I always do it this same way. I think.

Monday, April 05, 2004

More on Field Guides:

(I will be posting only about three times a week until around April 20, then back to my 6 per week schedule).

So imagine that you’re carrying Pedersen’s Field Guide to Persons Found Near the Monongahela River Basin (2,000 pages, fine print) and you see someone you wish to identify. After classifying for apparent age, sex and race/nationality, you observe, as unobtrusively as you can, the inner folds of the outer ear. Then you classify by shape of nose, ignoring the tiresome warning that Pedersen is not responsible for persons with cosmetic surgery in the last twelve months. Finally you wait until the person begins to move around, observe his gait, and this leads you, you’re delighted to see, to a single name. “Alan BagleSchmidt?” you ask. He turns a smiling face to you, but then – a look of puzzlement – “How did you know my name?”
“I never forget a face,” you reply, concealing the book under your arm.

Sunday, April 04, 2004

Do you ever use a Bird guide, a Tree guide, a Mushroom Guide…

As you probably know, these guides use a series of deductions to help you identify something you’ve never seen before. The leaves are opposite; the leaves have smooth edges; the twigs never advertise beer. So it must be a …

The remarkable thing is that once you’ve identified something this deductive way, you don’t need to do that again. The old pattern-recognition brain-machine kicks in and next time you simply recognize it. It’s amazing how we don’t need to re-identify things by a painful series of classifications, and since people really don’t think that way, it’s remarkable that people figured out how to use deductive classification to help you in the first place.

By the way, you’ve got to be really gutsy to eat a mushroom you’ve identified with a field guide. I don’t recommend it.

Friday, April 02, 2004

Would you open an email message sent to you by:

Here are some “from” names taken from genuine spam. I KNOW I don't know these people:
Rosario A. Unholier
Enrique Parsnip
Demetrius Jolly
Trombonists B. Tubers
Prologue H. Tombaugh

And would you read an email with these subject lines:
Promethium archibald forfeiture

And who would fall for Spam Scam text like this:
We hereby inform you that your computer was scanned under the IP The contents of your computer were confiscated as an evidence, and you will be indicated.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Did you ever “Tilt” a pinball machine?

Digital arcade games – themselves a dying species – have pretty much replaced the old pinball machines with real balls, flippers and lights, but both kinds coexisted for many years. In the old days manufacturers hated the players who would “tilt” the machines with a sharp side-whack to keep the ball in play. The whacks meant more repairs and less money in the coin box. Over the years pinball machines made their peace with the tilters. Motion sensors allowed gentle tilting, but penalized the player for any hard smacks.

I fed many a coin and launched many a ball, but I was psychologically unable to try a tilt. It just seemed wrong, evil even. Or maybe I associated tilting with the evil-looking players who used it.
I’ve tilted vending machines though. You know, the ones that almost but not quite drop their candy bars after you put in your money. It’s the machine that’s evil in that case.