Sunday, July 25, 2004


Sorry everyone. I'm going to take some time off from this blog. Please check in November 1, 2004, when I will start writing regularly again.

Your comments have given me a lot of pleasure. Thanks, readers!
- The Precision Blogger.

Friday, July 23, 2004

If the bolt fits:

Our extended family owns a cradle purchased at the 1851 Crystal Palace exposition in London. Its iron frame is secured by six enormous bolts. It is a tactile pleasure to screw each bolt into its perfectly fitting hole. The hand-made bolts are not interchangeable, the frame having been engineered by hand to match them. Today’s machine-made standard size nuts and bolts do not fit each other nearly so well, but they do the job. They are also cheaper and easier to replace. It’s a pity that today’s software industry hasn’t really embraced the idea that standard fittings are better than hand-crafted “perfect” fits. Software development is still in the mid-19th century.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Your Frequencies are Deficient, sir!

While I was doing my radio show this morning, a gentleman called I to tell me that “When I hear the music, the high frequencies sound just fine, but when you announce, I hear no high frequencies.” I dutifully agreed to report this aberration to the technical staff, but, really, I knew he was just dissing me.

There are people with wonderful head resonance. Their every word is colored by beautiful high overtones. There are people with strong glottal muscles. Every syllable and consonant starts with a burst of high-frequency sound, giving their voice great character and usually a sense of authority.
And then there are people like me, whose normal speaking voice has no high frequencies. It makes me sad whenever I think about it.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

The Original Volkwagen; on a diet?

Friends of ours bought a red Volkswagen shortly after that car reached the USA. VWs were incredibly cheap, partly because they were so FLIMSY. Our friend rounded a bend on an icy day. Her VW flipped onto its side and slid off the road. Fortunately she was only shaken up. She got a few people to lift the car upright again (it was also LIGHT). Aside from a few scratches, the VW looked good except for one minor detail – the back seat (a simple padded bench) had come out, and for some reason they could not push it back into place again.

The bench would not fit because the VW was now three inches narrower than before. It was a total loss.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Would you open an email (3) from a person named:

Loop V. Embolisms
Damnation B. Lawanda
Numbers Tuttle
Venomously O. Protruded (Too bad it wasn’t: Venomously O’Protruded.)
Fragrantly C. Flour

As usual, I’m not making these up. And would you open up an email with these subject lines:
“Your name is wrong!”
“marzipan looking glasses over 61”

And would you stop reading an email that began:
“You dont know me but my name is %TIF.” (I think the percent sign is silent.)

Monday, July 19, 2004

Can you hear without seeing?

If you play music on the Windows Media player, you may have tried to enjoy its abstract video patterns that change with the volume and pitch of the music. Apparently, most people now need to see a song when they hear it. When this “music-video” attitude comes to e-books, we’ll be trying to read while the individual letters dance, pulse, and change size in intricate rhythms. I’d hate that. Many people hear music better when their eyes are closed. Try it, maybe you don’t need those distracting videos at all.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

If you like SPICY food:

Sprinkle big doses of hot pepper and cinnamon on your ice cream, especially on vanilla. Hot pepper does for ice cream just what it does for everything else.

Friday, July 16, 2004

When did we lose subtraction?

We all have calculators now (hard or soft). So hardly anybody learns arithmetic, right? Cash registers tell the clerk exactly how much change to give us. In the last thirty years we’ve forgotten the higher skills of arithmetic, right?
Well it’s not so simple. If you worked in retail before calculators, you were taught to give change without subtracting. You were only expected to know addition, and if you handled change correctly you might not even know how much change the customer got. Sounds strange?

Suppose I buy something for 47 cents and hand you a dollar. Opening the register, you pick up three pennies, counting “48, 49, 50.” Then you pick up two quarters, counting “75, 100. Here’s your change, sir.”

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Obfuscate those bugs!

If you’ve been wondering why companies sell programs that are much more complicated than you need, C. A. R. Hoare had the explanation:
"There are two ways of constructing a software program:
one way is to make it so simple that there are obviously no deficiencies;
the other is to make it so complicated that there are no obvious deficiencies."
Hoare said this in 1980. I suspect that many companies have simply followed his advice.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Flavored Coffee, II – no chemicals here!

I previously recommended two types of coffee flavoring.: assuming you’re using one of those $20 grinders that grind three to four cups’ worth of beans, you could toss (into the grinder) four or five unopened cardamom pods, or a half dozen anise seeds. I now have two more recommendations. Break off a piece of nutmeg (a very strong flavor). Or add about a whole dollar’s worth of vanilla bean. (Sigh, that’s about an whole inch of bean.) The vanilla gives a creamy flavor with just a hint of vanilla taste, very nice.
I suspect the right thing to do with a vanilla bean is to use it to flavor sugar (add sugar to the bean for a month or two), but so far I lack the patience to try that.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Here’s what it means to grow old(er):

From our twenties on, our physical plant deteriorates. At the same time we get wiser, more resourceful and more able to deal with that deterioration. But there will be ages when we deteriorate faster than we smarten up. This seems to be pretty common around age 40. Try to stay calm and reassess when that accelerated physical deterioration happens to you. If you’re under age 35, I'm probably making no sense to you at all. Enjoy your blissful ignorance while you can!

Monday, July 12, 2004

Did you REALLY plan for success?

Most of the computer companies I’ve worked at were busily spending a ton of money, expecting to develop a product that would be used by thousands or millions of people, yielding immense profits. But I’ve observed a quirk of human nature: the managers, programmers, marketing people, in fact almost everyone at these companies ACTED as if they were only trying to achieve a modest success, something that would be bought by hundreds of people.

Anyone who takes the idea of a million customers seriously knows there will be a giant flood of calls to customer service; and yet I never saw anyone even planning how to train the support people who would be needed fast enough. A million customers will find bugs that can hardly be imagined; and yet the developers were always expected to move to new projects before the product shipped. A million customers requires an incredible pipeline for purchases, returns and web page interactions; all of these were informally set up with a “let’s see what happens” attitude.

It’s easy to think of reasons why people might say they wanted a million customers but not try to plan for them. But I just shake my head in disbelief when I realize that almost everyone acted that way.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

E. T.: The Sequel...

In the sequel, he'll never be without his cellphone.

Friday, July 09, 2004

AT&T War Stories (1985), #4

My first consulting assignment at AT&T was ending on November 30. Looking for more work, I called a director I knew. “Patrick,” I said, do you have consulting work for me?”
“I do,” he replied, “but since you work in the TLA group, I can’t pick you up. I have an agreement not to raid the TLA.”
“I don’t work for the TLA,” I said, “I just happen to have my office there. I’m being paid by (I named another director).”
“Doesn’t matter,” he said, “if your office was elsewhere I could take you, but I can’t touch you as long as you’re in the TLA.”

I found an empty office in another AT&T building. It wasn’t locked, and the guards would let me in on the strength of my AT&T consultant ID card. I had no idea if Patrick was serious. I moved in over Thanksgiving weekend.
On December first I called him. “Patrick, here I am in my AT&T office on Patriot’s Blvd.”
I had an intense feeling that I had let go of one trapeze bar, and had no idea where the second bar was.
“Great,” he said, “come on over, I need you to run a project.” I packed up and moved on to my second consulting job.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Is the telephone chord to your headset all twisted?

I better give you this advice right now. It’ll be obsolete soon when everybody uses wireless phones only.
If the chord from the telephone to thing you hold in your face is all twisted: disconnect at one end or the other (usually easy to do), hold the heavy piece in your hand, and the chord will untwist in a moment.
That chord usually gets twisted because you give it a turn in the process of picking it up and putting it back. See if you can catch yourself doing it!

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Better air. Better air.

I recently remembered the first time I heard about someone complaining of bad air in a working environment. This can be a painful issue, since air quality in big buildings varies a lot, and usually only a few people are affected, so their complaints are not taken seriously.

A friend of mine remembered when he worked in mechanical drafting, sitting at a large table in a large room full of other drafting tables and other drafters. Just one guy complained that the air was bad. He complained a lot. his supervisor was on edge, and there was some question whether the complainer was really stable.
One day the complainer walked in after lunch looking happy for the first time in weeks. He was carrying a few bulky packages, and a soft sly smile played over his face. He unwrapped the packages, set everything up and voila! A caged canary twittered beside his desk. He was fired ten minutes later.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

What’s Special about Good Movers:

Once again I had an opportunity to watch a team of guys move something heavy. I believe the special quality of good moving people is not strength. Rather, they are considerate.

  • They are of course considerate of the items they are moving, and the narrow spaces they move through, to avoid scratches and outright damage.
  • They are strikingly considerate of each other, always aware of the potential to avoid another’s injury by watching their partners, asking questions and making suggestions to prevent a partner from getting into an awkward position.

    I’ve watched - and participated in - some amateur moving and some bad moving; I’ve overheard a lot of conversations in my life; but I’ve never heard anything resembling the conversations that occur among a good team of movers. Listen to them sometime!
  • Monday, July 05, 2004

    A question about keyboarding:

    To explain what I'm talking about, suppose you type the word "prelude" but you meant to type "please". Realizing your mistake at once, do you:
    - Remove the "relud" and insert "leas" in its place?
    - Erase the whole word and type "please".

    Whether or not you touchtype, you're probably aware that it's faster to retype the whole word. I've often tried to save time by correcting only the wrong letters. The minor problem is that you waste time thinking. The MAJOR problem is that you probably have a muscle memory for the entire word "please", it just flows from your fingertips spontaneously. There's nothing spontaneous (for most of us) about typing "leas".

    I think about this when I listen to virtuoso pianists. They play notes much too fast for their brain to guide their hands to the next note. (Scientists have studied this effect.) Instead they seem to unleash long muscle memory pipelines to plan ahead where their hands will go. We do the same when we type.

    Sunday, July 04, 2004

    So, what would you call this kind of lead-in:

    If you've read many of my blog entries, you've noticed that many of my "titles" don't make the slightest bit of sense until after you've read the item. But afterwards they seem appropriate. Is it fair to call then "titles"? I can't think of a good word for them, and would appreciate your suggestions.

    The composer Debussy posed a similar (but different) problem when composing his piano preludes. Each one has a title, but the titles appear at the end of each piece. Debussy might have wanted us to decide on our own what we think each prelude is about before diffidently suggesting his own idea. It's not easy to decide what to call his post titles either.

    Friday, July 02, 2004

    About: Barbecue Cooking:

    An original thought today, but it’s Rita Rudner’s, not mine: “Men will cook when there’s danger involved.” (That observation’s certainly true of me, even though I do not barbecue.)

    Thursday, July 01, 2004

    How many times did he…

    Years ago I drove three coworkers to a day meeting in North Jersey. Among us was Ralph, a programmer whose dress and hairstyle identified him as a laidback holdover from the counter-culture 1960’s.
    At lunchtime we found that I had lockedmy keys in the car. We obtained a hanger and each took a turn fiddling with it – rather feebly - trying to release the lock. All except Ralph, who stood to the side, apparently an uninterested spectator. But finally he said “May I try?” and I handed him the hanger. He turned away from me, smartly bending the top of the hanger as he did so; walked up to the car and in a blink the door was open. I could not have gotten in as fast with a key.
    “Ralph, where did you learn to do that?” we asked. “Oh a guy showed me once,” he replied. But we were thinking…