Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Frightened by a Boat:

I was walking along the road-edge of a sidewalk when a mysterious apparition entered my vision at the left, a long thin unidentified object sliding quickly across above my head. It’s amazing what complex analysis our brains perform to enable us to “see”, and we can appreciate it even more when the brain misfires on something that briefly makes no sense. Vision relies heavily on a total world view of our environment and everything we know about, to give us useful images.

I shied away in terror, sure that something was about to land on my head. But as the Volkswagen drove up and past me, I identified the narrow long racing boat that stuck out a good 15 feet in front of the car. Until I could see most of the boat, it was just a UFO.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Mirror out of order:

We were travelling, stopped at a gas station on parkway. In the restroom, big hand-written sign pasted on the mirror: Out of Order, DO NOT USE.
Well I've been known to rebel against authority; I looked in the mirror. I think it was working, although I did look a litle more disheveled than usual.

Oh - the sink below the mirror didn't work at all.

Saturday, June 26, 2004

A rule for failure:

David Gristwood has published an essay on the 21
Rules of Thumb – How Microsoft develops its Software
. One of these
rules is “Never trade a bad date for an equally bad date”, and what he
means is this: if you have to slip, make sure you’re successful hitting
the new deadline, else credibility and morale will suffer. I was
expecting a different reason for this rule. Here’s a problem that even
affects non-programmers.

When a project has an impossible deadline, people working on it will say so, be depressed, and grumble. But they will keep working on the project (do they have a choice?) and in their minds they will think opposite, success-oriented thoughts like this:
“They really want to finish the project in a month, so they must assume we will take horrible risky shortcuts.” “They really want to finish the project in a month, so they don’t mind if we use inferior materials and leave stuff out. "Maybe it IS possible to finish in a month if we skip testing for defects.” After a few of these attempts to meet the impossible deadline, the work is so messed up that it will not meet subsequent deadlines either. Bad dates make the work regress.

Friday, June 25, 2004

Why would you buy a fuel-efficient car?

USA cars today, on average, seem to be less fuel efficient than 20 years ago. Many environmentalists feel that people will buy gas guzzlers as fast as the manufacturers can make them. The only hope for fuel economy is to force the automakers to make more efficient cars. Well I’d like to float one idea: Would you consider buying a car that could go 750 miles between gas refills? Think of all the time you’d spend away from gas stations, and all the trips you cold take without refueling at some horribly pricey place.
In any given year, cars tend to all have similar cruisings distance regardless of efficiency. In the 1960’s and early 70’s, a tank generally held 200 to 250 miles worth of gas; now it’s 300 to 400. But imagine a car with a 16 gallon tank that gets 50 mpg! That’s 800 miles in one tank, and that freedom might sell a lot of cars.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Easy Living (wide open):

The driver’s door on my car opens particularly wide, making it so easy for me to slip in and out. Someone recently admired my very open car door, so I decided to share its secret with you. Here’s how to do it:

  • Open the door wide.
  • Inspect: you should find a plastic harness in the front that goes tight, limiting how wide the door opens. If you do not see this harness, I strongly suggest skipping the remaining steps.
  • Back slowly out of your (or any) garage.
  • Ignore the loud grinding sound warning you that the door is caught on the center post of the garage, and the harness is stretching to the max.
  • As soon as the harness snaps, slam on the brakes to prevent real damage.
  • You’re all set! Drive forward a little so you can close the car door.

    I must admit that I omitted the inspection step above. Although I’ve enjoyed my wide door for years, I have not adjusted any of my other car doors.
  • Wednesday, June 23, 2004

    We can buy fresh lychee nuts here in the Northeast:

    Lychee nuts are a seasonal fruit – imported here at only certain times of the year. Fresh Lychees are delicious if you like that sort of thing (and I do). Try them. Peel off the crumbly skin (a little like peeling an egg) and eat the juicy inside but not the fairly big nut. Here’s a web page with more than you’ll want to know about Lychee.

    Tuesday, June 22, 2004

    Bernard Herrmann wrote an opera:

    The composer Bernard Herrmann collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock on most of his great movies. If you watch dialogless scenes from these movies with the sound off (e.g. take any thriller scene from Psycho), you’ll see just how important Herrmann’s contribution was. It often seems as if Hitch was just roughing out the video, trusting Herrmann’s audio to make it work.

    Like many another composer, Herrmann could not resist writing an opera, for which he used the book Wuthering Heights. Now I think it would have been really neat if Herrmann had gone to Hitchcock and said, “Look, I’m going to write an opera. How about giving me a plot?” I’ll bet Alfred Hitchcock would have loved to plot an opera.

    Monday, June 21, 2004

    Today’s entry is not very unique:

    I’ve heard a lot of people use the phrase “very unique”, and I think it actually means something. People want you to know that the event they’re discussing is not unique in some ordinary way, but (perhaps) some intensely striking way. I expect society to develop a sense of taste regarding uniquenesses. We may have concepts like ”casually unique”, “alarmingly unique”, and “n-dimensionally unique” (that is, unique in N entirely separate ways, such as Bob Dylan’s viola being struck by lightning without injury to it or him, as he plays it for once it his life during an impromptu concert arranged by Ross Perot in the Grand Canyon).

    Sunday, June 20, 2004

    A great blow has been struck against Digital Rights Management (DRM):

    DRM refers to many technologies that enable companies to sell products to you and then control how you use them. A good example: You can’t play a DVD made in France on an American DVD player or vice versa, not because they use incompatible standards, but simply because some media companies decided not to let you.

    Microsoft is betting part of their future on deeply integrating DRM into ALL general purpose computers. Yet they invited Cory Doctorow to give them a lecture on why they SHOULDN’T support DRM, and he put together a witty, intelligent good read with breadth and depth. (I’ve linked to his summary; follow his own link to the full text.)

    Now you may think the exciting question is whether he will actually persuade Microsoft’s leaders to change their minds. But I think that’s the side issue. His lecture will be widely read at Microsoft, and the people who work there are avid consumers of music, movies, CDs, DVDs and all sorts of other copyrighted art. They will talk among themselves and find that most of them agree with Doctorow. So either Microsoft’s leaders will back off from supporting DRM, or they will try to lead their troops where their troops simply will not follow.

    So much for heavy-handed computer control of artistic rights! For more on the benefits of gentle copyrights, browse Lawrence Lessig.

    Friday, June 18, 2004


    My cousin Michael used to make very wry jokes. The one I can remember deserves whatever immortality the web can confer, so here goes:

    We were discussing how difficult it must be to be a simultaneous translator at the U.N., listening to speakers in one language while concurrently saying what they said in another. Michael was sure he couldn’t possibly do it. He imagined himself as a simultaneous translator saying: “Ummm … … something about shipping.”

    Thursday, June 17, 2004

    Do you fill the tank or buy an even N dollars-worth?

    If you fill the tank every time, you’re minimizing your time at the gas station. But if you always ask for $10 (remember when that was a lot?) you might save money. Asked to fill, the attendant may squeeze extra drops of gas onto the ground. Someone has noticed that the attendant may also misunderstand (?) you and fill with a higher octane than you requested. That could net him money if he’s filling the tank, but there’s little incentive for this trick if you asked for $10 worth.

    Oh I’m so lococentric: if you don’t live in NJ or Oregon you probably fill the tank yourself, and my hairsplitting means nothing to you! How do YOU decide whether to fill the tank?

    Wednesday, June 16, 2004

    Since the good old days:

    When I got my second job as a programmer, I memorized the computer instructions and assembler commands in advance. I walked in on the first day ready to program. There was little else one needed to know.
    Later in my career programming was more complicated. I worked with many other programmers doing similar work, and we asked each other about whatever we needed to learn.
    When I became a consultant, I worked less often with groups of programmers. But programming was even more complicated. I relied on a bunch of books to learn what I needed. Each time I changed projects, I bought two or three more books.
    Now programming is horribly complicated. I constantly need to find out things I never knew. But oh, the Web! It may take five or twenty searches, but beautiful explanations of everything I need are just waiting for me to find them.

    Tuesday, June 15, 2004

    Would you read an email from these persons?

    Joseph Bah
    Histories J. Cerebra
    Jarlsberg R. Soup
    Annie Kurtz adaplcwdok

    And would you read an email if the subject line was:
    subject: granulate florican grain hi hereford capacity execute bloop
    subject: blood clot bubble baths
    subject: Clacke cornfloyer
    subject: Extend your piece of mind
    subject: Take a look at the potential ptovmqy rlrlq eh
    (Excuse me while I punctuate that one properly: Take a look at the potential ptovmqy rlrlq, eh?)

    Monday, June 14, 2004

    Is it going to rain today?

    Meteorology is a horribly inexact discipline, but here’s one aspect you can handle by yourself. In the spring and summer, you sometimes wake up to a completely gray sky. What’s the chance it’s going to rain?
    Go outside and look directly up at the sky. Try to decide whether the cloud cover is thin. (You can almost see blue sky through a thin cloud cover. You’ll get the hang of this with a little practice.) If the clouds are thin, the sun is probably boiling them off and you’ll have a blue sky day. If the cloud cover is thick, there’s a good chance of rain.

    Sunday, June 13, 2004

    Let's fix Baseball:

    The designated hitter (DH) rule is the bane and pride of baseball. In the American league, which uses it, the game is too simple, deprived of all the strategy required (in the National league) to deal with pitchers' at bats. But the DH rule has extended the careers of many stars with great fan recognition, and that's good. Here's how to have the best of both:

    The DH should not be allowed to bat for the pitcher, but rather for a fielder. That means there would still be all that pitching strategy in DH games.

    Even better, every team has a player in the minors whose fielding is spectacular, crowd-pleasing, but can't hit a lick. Pairing these great fielders with designated hitters will make the defensive game more exciting. What a great idea, if I do say so myself.

    Friday, June 11, 2004

    Panic Button, please:

    Many years ago I took a training course for a fancy Engineering Drawing program on a Unix workstation. Our company had an emergency, and the manufacturer kindly set up a class with double the size they regarded as their maximum. The classroom was filled with Unix machines strung together with Ethernet cables and AC extension cords.

    About an hour into the course, a student in the back of the room asked “Is there anything you have to do before you shut down a UNIX system?”
    ”I’m glad you asked,” replied the instructor, launching into a discussion of the importance of a graceful shutdo...”
    ”Because the machine is on fire!” said the student.
    We turned to see smoke pouring out of a machine and even flames. “PULL THE PLUG” yelped the instructor.
    When the smoke cleared it was obvious that far too many UNIX machines had been connected to the same AC circuit.

    Thursday, June 10, 2004

    Open that drawer, spare that back:

    I had to pull some heavy drawers this morning, and they reminded me of a trick I developed when my back was bad. (Half of us will get bad backs sooner or later.) Grab the handle with your fingers, then anchor your thumb on the (non-movable) frame of the thing you are opening. Then rotate your hand (toward the thumb) so that your fingers pull on the drawer. You'll develop good force, and you'll notice your back is not involved AT ALL.

    Wednesday, June 09, 2004

    A Coffee recommendation:

    I’m currently buying coffee from the Fair Trade Coffee Company. Their coffee is very tasty, and I do hope they really are practicing “fair trade”. One of our blog readers pointed out that of course, there are companies just claiming to be fair trade to get more business. I have no idea about this particular company, but they are certified.
    If you deal with them you will get emails from someone named Ahhre. I’m always happy to get his emails and I assume he’s quite at home on Talk Like a Pirate day.

    Tuesday, June 08, 2004

    A little excitement in radio land:

    I’m a regular DJ for a weekly classical music program, 6:00 to 8:30 a.m. Today I agreed to do 6 to 11 because the station is moving to new quarters and they are very short-handed. The station changes formats many times during the day; at 11 a.m., no Jazz announcer showed up. I went on the air and said “Well jazz fans, here’s the story: there’s no jazz announcer here and the shelves are bare. Almost all the music has moved to our new location. I’ll put on a some more classical music and see what I can find.”
    I put on Enesco’s first Romanian Rhapsody (11’54”) and started hunting. Luckily I saw a familiar name – Ahmad Jamal – and we managed to have a jazz program. A good thing too, my only other idea was to feed our jazz fans a steady diet of classical pop – Sorcerer’s apprentice, etc.

    Monday, June 07, 2004

    Grinding Coffee:

    If you use a cheap coffee grinder, run it for only ten to fifteen seconds at a time, then let it rest for a few minutes. (I get a decent result by grinding for nine seconds, waiting about two minutes, then nine seconds and I’m done.) By resting the grinder, you can make it last twenty years instead of one or two; you’re being kind to the metal in the motor that otherwise will overheat. You’re also being kind to the coffee, not heating it up too much in the grinding process.
    Add a great flavor while you grind, it’ll taste fresh. I recommend cardamom seeds for starters (a common flavor around the Mediterranean and the Eastern Asia). Just toss in three or four whole seedpods; no need to shell the seeds. A dozen anise seeds tastes great, too.

    Sunday, June 06, 2004

    You can make better coffee than Starbucks!

    You can make better coffee, at home or (in most cases) at work, than Starbucks. A lot better in fact, so why not?
    The French Press makes excellent coffee with little fuss. All you need is nearly boiling water and a few minutes to wait. The French Press comes in a variety of sizes, here are some from Bodum.
    If you search the web for fair trade coffee beans, you can buy good coffee that was not made by totally exploiting the workers and coffee-bush owners.
    Beans keep their flavor best, and you can grind them effectively in the cheapest possible grinder, although coffee gourmets will disagree on this. A grinder also enables you to have truly delicious flavored coffee, not chemically-flavored coffee. More about flavors soon.

    Friday, June 04, 2004

    Brood X, Underfoot:

    There are cicada carcasses everywhere in our part of NJ, and we seem to have no natural predator (dung beetle, ant, whatever) to clean them up. I’ve discovered that many people absolutely do not want to step on a cicada, dead or alive. If you feel that way here, with concentration you can step to avoid them (at least in daylight). If you’re the kind of person who prefers not to step on sidewalk cracks, you already know that this can be done too, with care.
    But if you want to step on neither cicadas nor sidewalk cracks, there’s very little hope for you here.

    Thursday, June 03, 2004

    Something exciting is coming to a plane near you:

    I enjoy it when the video screen shows the plane’s location on the map, even when it’s too dark or cloudy to see the ground. In the future, those video screens will show spectacular 3D views of the terrain you’re flying over, even accurate night views. Once this sort of camera-view becomes a military commodity, the commercial airlines will fall all over each other rushing to offer it first.

    Wednesday, June 02, 2004

    If you like to stir-fry vegetables:

    Buy a pound package of Dole’s Coleslaw mix. It’s full of veggies all prepared for a quick stir-fry. Add a few other ingredients and seasonings for an excellent dish. What you don’t fry, you can make into coleslaw. There’s a catch though: you have to like the taste of cabbage.

    Tuesday, June 01, 2004

    Yet Another “Oops”:

    Early In my second ever programming job I decided I needed a table in addition to my desk. This company operated on a shoestring, so my manager turned a deaf ear to my table request. SO I took a cardboard shipping box about 30x30x30”, laid a piece of plywood on it, and voila Viola! I had my table, rickety but serviceable.

    A few days later my boss came by to instruct me how to deal with some issue. As he talked, he sat down on my “table”, collapsing it beneath his bantam weight, dumping him onto the floor. I got my real table two hours later.