Thursday, March 31, 2005

Joseph, Jacob, Joshua, Jessica …

Names beginning with the sound “J” have been hugely popular in the United States. Ironically, a great many of these J names originally began with the “Y” sound, but were spelled with a "J" in languages where J is pronounced like our Y. When English adopted these names, suppose they had been spelled with an initial Y. Would they ever have become so popular? Yosef, Yakob, Yoshua, Yishica, Ian, ... But not, I think, Yames..

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

If you don’t like someone…

My father did not like the music of Franz Liszt. He referred to Liszt as a greatly underneglected composer.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Memories of a Corning Glass Factory:

Many years ago I watched Corelleware being made at Corning. Corelle is a sandwich of three glass layers. It's the tension between the layers that gives Corelleware its strength.

The three-layer glass sandwich forms as the gobs of molten glass come out of their vats and fall together into the first of a series of molds.

I also saw the machine that shaped the handle on the Corelle cups. For the first year they were manufactured, Corelle was sold with the cups from a more expensive line because the Corelle cup handles were not forming properly. The cup started as a flat molten pancake with a flat handle. It was shaped into a cup in a series of molding steps, and then it passed by a station where five little hammers tapped the still-flexible handle to push it into its correct shape. The five taps occurred in less than two seconds. It took Corning engineers a year to figure out the ideal sequence and strength of those taps to shape the handle.

My favorite part of the glass manufacture line was a device called a "motion inverter." The purpose of this device was to turn an item upside down. The motion inverter was simply a round horizontal bar, maybe a half-inch in diameter, across the moving line. A robot-like device would pick up a cup or dish and set it on the motion inverter, just a tiny bit off center. The cup would hang there for a long moment, then fall off while flipping over, down onto the next conveyer belt.

One of the most critical jobs was preventing jams on the first machine that shaped the molten glass. Glass moved through 8 or 12 stations on this machine in less than a minute. A jam here had the potential to shut down the entire line, and it could take six weeks to start the line up again. I was told that good workers on that machine often fell asleep on the job. This was okay as long as they could wake up and clear a jam when the alarm sounded, in just a few seconds.

It took six weeks to start up a glass furnace because the furnaces at that time used electrical radiant heat. To make glass you have to melt sand, and sand is not transparent, so radiant heat will not pass through it. First a special cover was placed on the vat with many incoming gas lines, and a gas fire melted the sand for weeks. Finally the sand was molten and transparent, allowing them to switch to the electrical radiant heat. Then they needed to get the right consistency and they could start manufacturing. More sand could now be slowly added without unduly clouding the interior of the vat.

These giant vats – about ten feet in diameter I think - could withstand the 2000 degree temperatures, but the metal supports that held the vats in place could not. The vats were suspended high above a gigantic unused cellar. If molten glass overflowed the pots, enormous water hoses were aimed at the metal supports to cool them, to try to keep them from melting on contact with the dripping glass.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Superbowl Special:

The week before one of the first superbowls, every TV station had specials about some aspect of the game. But on the Johnny Carson show he said “I bet you haven’t seen THIS Superbowl special,” showed a short movie about the toilet rolls and holders that had been developed for the game. I believe the credit went to Scott. The problem they solved was that at a really special sports event, the people who are supposed to be supplying supplies to the bathrooms watch the game instead. So Scott invented these superlong gigantic rolls and holders – you’ve seen them – that fit over ordinary TP holders, so they were easy to retrofit. Among other things, the movie short featured a big roll unrolling, showing how many times it could paper a football field.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Many years ago, Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller) suggested a good way to sneak obscenities past Email filters: Let your dictionary correct the obscene words, and take whatever alternative word is suggested. Your mail won't be blocked, and your recipient will know exactly what you meant.
It is in this spirit that I never cease to be fascinated by spelling suggestions from word proecessors that are not exactly au courant. For example:
Pixies for pixels
Spa for Spam
Spasm for Spams
and gaol for aol.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Free Juice:

My aunt and uncle lived in a rundown apartment building in Manhattan. After a howling storm knocked out their power, ConEd ran an emergency powerline into their building. Months later, the tenants realized they were still getting free electricity. The emergency line had bypassed the meters, and ConEd seemed to have forgotten about it. A lawyer friend told them to set aside plenty to pay their back bills. “When they remember you, “he said,” they’ll send you an estimated back bill. Whatever they estimate, you’ll have to pay.”

Five years later their building was condemned. They had to move out (they had an apartment-wrecking party when they moved). The building was torn down. Evidence gone! They got six years of free electricity.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

How do you get to …(practice?)

I came up out of the subway, in a hurry to get to Carnegie Hall for a concert celebrating the construction of the 500,000th Steinway piano. It had been many years since I approached Carnegie by subway, and as I hit the street I was not sure of my bearings. I hustled into the corner bookstore and carefully asked “Where’s Carnegie Hall?”
An amazing series of expressions ran across the clerk’s face. Finally he managed, “That’s not what you’re supposed to say.”
“I didn’t want to give you an easy setup line,” I replied.
“It’s over there,” he gestured, and I hurried on to my concert.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The Good Old Osborne 1:

Boingboing has an entry about the Osborne 1, the original portable computer (at 24.5 pounds!). I worked with one a bit, and although it was a technological marvel for its time, I do not miss the darn thing.

In the Boing entry, Stefan says "...The company pioneered the concept of bundling. In addition to the CP/M operating system, you got WordStar, a spreadsheet, ..."

It's not quite correct to credit Osborne with bundling. There were useful CP/M programs floating around, but the reality for each of these early computers was that you could hardly buy any non-trivial 3rd party software. You were dependent on the computer vendor to make products load and run on the machine. Osborne HAD to provide WordStar, spreadsheet, etc. the only question was whether to sell them separately.

Not Enough Indians.

I was working on a computer project with about forty developers. Things were going badly, and we routinely gathered at lunchtime to complain about everything that was wrong. One of our number was a Ukrainian √©migr√© – ten years in the US – with a fine English vocabulary, good enough to “get” a joke about Holsteins and Guernseys. Gregory often carried a dictionary and constantly improved his word knowledge.
One day we decided what was wrong with our project: too many chiefs and not enough indians. Hearing this, Gregory grew puzzled. The project manager was from India, so was the hardware designer and two of the programmers; why did we think there were not enough Indians?

Monday, March 21, 2005

A,B,D,C, G, E,F, oops:

Most of my schooling was scored with letter grades, so I’ve always thought in those terms. (4.0? What is that, A+?) But in my experience, letter grades were squishy and imprecise.

In grade school our teachers marked A,B,C, D, F. Then they decided to add a new mark, “I” for “Improving.” The rationale: if a student’s work was failing but the student was trying harder, “I” was an encouragement; still not passing, but better than F. Soon, students whose work had been D and were slip-sliding down that awful slope were given an I grade to warn them they had started to fail. (“How’s Henry doing in Math? “Sorry, I’m afraid he’s improving.”)

Meanwhile Juilliard, that most competitive of music schools, was also marking A,B,C,D,F. However some students came along who were obviously better than those getting A’s, so teachers invented a new top grade: G for good. A few years later the pianist Van Cliburn arrived and was a better student in every way. His teachers gave him E (excellent), thus: E,G,A,B,C,D,F.

Letter grades: not intuitively obvious.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

From ... To:

Here's the answer to a word problem:

What is the word problem for which that's the answer?
(There might be a better answer. If you find one, please post it in a comment!)

Friday, March 18, 2005

Headstones are too small.

Most headstones on graves are too small. Or perhaps the fonts used on them are too large. The headstone (if one plans ahead) is a rare last chance to express a strong opinion to a captive audience. I’m sure many of us would like to express five or six, but there’s hardly room for one clear thought. Such as:

  • No more deadlines for me.
  • At last, no more wires to untangle.
  • The world’s become a mess hasn’t it? Glad I’m not there.
  • Death and Taxes may both be inevitable, but you get to deal with one at a time.
  • If you figure out my password, please reformat my disk drive. Don’t look!
  • See? That wire needed more insulation.
  • This headstone has been reformatted to fit your field of vision.
  • Back in twenty minutes.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Drip … drip …

Walking home on a cloudy, windless day, I felt the chilling sensation of sparse cold raindrops on the nape of my neck. I soon realized what this meant: my posture was lousy! Had I been standing straight, my longish hair would have guarded my neck.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Um, about that ten day-old meatloaf...

The fine columnist John Dvorak has been complaining in PC magazine about vendors' silly attempts to build computers into large household applicances. I agree with him for now, but in the long run, say, ten to fifteen years, I think you'll love your smart fridge ("SF").
The key to the SF is speech recognition, good odor, visual, x-ray and spectroscopic analysis, plus a robotic ability to move things around. The SF will observe your habits such that when you open it, the foods you're likely to want will be in front. If not, no need to get down on your knees and peer; just say what you want, and the the SF will hand it to you. The SF will advise you of each item's ETTD (Estimated Time to Disgusting), advise you how to improve your food-wrapping skills, and clean up those inevitable leaks and spills all by itself, I want it now!

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Who makes up Jokes?

Years ago I read on the Internet that although many people know how to be funny, only professional joke writers create jokes; the rest of us retell their creations. At the time I felt this judgment was too harsh, but each time I actually create a new joke, I wonder if the writer was correct, and I’m one of the elect (I should be so lucky).
It’s interesting to watch how people think when they are actually trying to create humor. Here’s a neat example, at a blog called “I think I want to be a comedian.” A riff on drumsticks.
And here’s a case where I believe the hardworking jokesmith thought of the punchline first.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Regional Pronunciations:

The first time I drove to Philadelphia’s southern suburbs – a long drive in pouring rain – I got lost. Flagging down a few passersby, I asked how to get onto the Schuylkill Expressway. A downstate New Yorker, I naturally pronounced this “Shile-kill.” All I got were blank stares. Little did I know that the road I wanted to find was the “Skeekle”.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Programming for the two big I’s (6) - The milestones I had to meet:

(This is the sixth installment of a story that started here.
The previous episode is here.)
We were starting too late to meet the project's milestones. Each milestone required certain functionality to be complete. We agreed that at best I could write enough software to make it look like we were on schedule. I very frankly described the next three milestones like this (to everyone, including the people who would verify them):

  • Fool our group manager into thinking that the first part of the software was working
  • Fool our director into thinking that more of the software was working
  • Fool representatives of the two Big I companies into thinking that most of the software was working.

If I wrote fast enough, I would buy a little time for the last milestone: release the real working software. We were not going to try to fool the customers.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Would you open yet another email from a person named (these are from genuine spam):

Pupa R. Oopses
Yard Q. Nettlesome
Stupendous S. Mountings
Unopposed G. Lipreading
Bravest D. Torpedo
Perverted Elf

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Where would you sit?

Today, I’m going to describe a business meeting and ask you where you would sit. Many people never give it a thought, but choosing the right chair at a meeting is an art.

Imagine that you’re a developer or a creative employee; you build websites, or you design and make things. Your manager invites you to a meeting. It seems that Marketing has a few unknown complaints to discuss. Your boss’s opposite number in Marketing will be there, bringing someone in their group. You’ll to be there to answer technical questions. Both boss’s bosses will be there also, making six in all. “I’ve reserved room 128 at 2pm”, says your manager.

You're the first one to arrive - a few minutes early - and you check out the room. It is smallish and windowless, has a narrow rectangular table and adequate seating for six, three on each side. Where do you sit?

Actually it’s too dangerous to be the first person to choose a seat in this room. Come back in a few minutes, or busy yourself cleaning the whiteboard. … In a few minutes your boss arrives, gives you a cheerful hello, and sits down in the middle chair on the side nearer door. Now where do you sit?

There are two good chairs. I would take the seat on the opposite side farthest from the door, but you might go for the chair directly opposite your boss.
The first consideration is that the two high-level managers will appreciate the chairs nearest the door. They have the greatest right to duck out for a phone call or an emergency. No point getting in their way.

The bigger point is that your boss may have been targeted for a hailstorm of dangerous criticism. If so, you want to stay out of the line of fire. If the meeting is going to be friendly, it’ll matter less where you sit.

Now you may feel that you want to sit at your boss’s side, the two of you a team against the world! But I’ve already hinted about your boss’s lack of self-preservation (more about that later), so perhaps you shouldn’t count on that support so much. In any case, you probably want to avoid a complete “us versus them” meeting, with all of Marketing on one side of the table, and your team on the other. (I almost always choose a seat that will break up the “teams.”)

If you sit opposite your boss, you prevent the worst scenario – the top Marketing person staring straight across the table and attacking your hapless manager. (I once watched my director get shelled like that, and it was an ugly sight.) But for this very reason you may appear too “uppity” if you take that seat. I would play it safer and shift one to the side. If the dreaded confrontation occurs, you will be separated from the victim and appear, by your choice of seat, simply loyal to the company.

Why am I worried that this meeting will be contentious? The presence of the higher level managers is a warning. Whatever these “complaints” are, how come they were not already resolved a level or two lower in the hierarchy?

Now why am I worrying about your boss's sense of self-preservation?

  • Your boss should have chosen a safe chair after some of the Marketing people sat down.
  • Some attempt should have been made to define and settle the complaints already, without bringing higher-ups into the meeting.
  • The lack of an agenda is ominous. An agenda could specify the issues, and might allow your boss to control the meeting.
  • You were given no useful information to prepare for the meeting.
  • Maybe there was no choice, but the meeting room is a trap. A larger room, windows, or better yet a round table would all reduce contention. (Round tables tend to make people feel more like equals at a meeting.)
  • Perhaps your boss should not have invited you to this meeting. Excluding you would allow your boss to temporize, handling any awkward query by offering to respond after talking to staff. Since you're there, you may have to come up with some brilliancy on the spot, and you won’t even have a chance to ask privately what your boss does not want you to say.

Take that far seat on the other side of the table. It’s going to be a rocky afternoon…

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The German Requiem, section two:

In another chorus, with another director, we sang the second section of Brahms’ German Requiem (in English). There is a very dramatic moment when the chorus sings “Aber, das Herrns’ Wort” (But the Lord’s word …). “Aber” is set to two loud, syncopated chords, and sounds wonderful. Our English translation used “But” for “Aber”, and simply left one of the two chords out, ruining the musical moment. Our conductor (a Viennese) hated that. One day he asked me about the word “Albeit”. I thought that it would do, although it does not mean the same thing. We sang AL’Be’it instead of But. The music sounded fine, and no one complained about the accuracy of the translation.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

The German Requiem, section five:

Long ago, our chorus in summer camp sang the fifth section of Brahms’ German Requiem in English. The chorus director tore his hair out from the awful sssibilance that floated in the air every time the chorus sang the word “hosts”. It takes a long time to say “sts”, and since we were amateurs we did not sing the letters exactly together. He could not get us to minimize all the “s” sounds.
I suggested a solution: half the singers should sing the word “host” and the other half should simultaneously sing “hoats.” Together we would sound like “hosts”. I wish he had tried it; he thought it was silly; I know it would have worked.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Voila! Another misused word in cyberspace:

Many people seem to think that:
is an exclamation. And their spelling checker won’t disabuse them. Walt Kelly, the creator of Pogo Possum, delighted in this confusion way back in the 1950’s. One of his animal characters liked to say: “Voila, Viola!” (Other people like to say that too.)

Sunday, March 06, 2005


I was managing Quality Assurance at a company developing an Internet Telephone program that allowed five people to connect and confer together. QA tests of the conferencing were not going well, so I arranged a test conference call among the five key programmers. They experienced the frustrations of trying to hear each other, and then I got them together in a room to discuss the problems.
The developers had all thought their software was better than that, and they came into the room all charged up with ideas about what was wrong and how to fix it. They all started talking at once, and I’m not sure anyone was listening to the others. Finally, I silenced the din, picked up a floppy disk and handed it to one of them. "Whoever is holding this disk may talk,” I said. “When you finish, hand the floppy someone else.”
And that’s how our developers discussed their software that was intended to let five people talk at once. Irony squared, I think.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Programming for the two big I’s (5) - We had a spec; why did we also need a design?

(This is the fifth installment of a story that started here.
The next episode is here.)

The spec states what a program will do. For example, it might state that a GUI screen will have a "Run" button you can press to play the current video. The design describes how the software will be organized under the hood.

There is often little relationship between the spec structure and the design structure.The spec might describe a hundred error messages and when to show them to the user. The programmer might design one routine to display all these messages. The spec might have one sentence explaining how the user moves from one screen to another. The programmer might design dozens of routines to make many different screen transitions appear to be similar.

In this case, I had a four week deadline to make part of this software run. The code I wrote to meet the first deadline might be a useless a foundation for the rest of thc code. I hoped to be very lucky.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Police crashes force spending cutback

The title of this item was a news story headline. It fascinates me how difficult it can be to parse headlines in English, where almost any of the words could be a noun or a verb. I did not understand this headline until I looked at the story (From
“Officers in one Berlin police precinct have to make cutbacks because repairs to crashed cars are costing too much.”

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

A favorite Sports Announcer malaprop:

One year the Mets had a shot at the pennant, but in a crucial August game they seemed to throw it all away. How badly did they play? Here's what I heard a radio announcer say about that game. If you want to get into the spirit of things, he said it slowly and ponderously:

The way the Mets played today: there are No Words To Describe It.
They were awful.
They were terrible!
They were atrocious.
They were abominable.
They were horrible.
They were ...

("No Words", huh? Are you quite sure?)

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Got to point you to Bruce Schneier again.

Bruce Schneier, internationally renowned security technologist and author, argues that the “no-fly” list is an abomination that doesn’t really work. He characterizes it in this deadpan, reasonable and hilarious way:
“Imagine a list of suspected terrorists so dangerous that we can't ever let them fly, yet so innocent that we can't arrest them - even under the draconian provisions of the Patriot Act. This is the federal government's ‘no-fly’ list.”
His short article ends this way: “In a country built on the principles of due process, the current no-fly list is an affront to our freedoms and liberties. And it's lousy security to boot.”