Friday, September 30, 2005

Enforcing Hotel Privacy:

Have you had the experience of putting privacy sign on your doorknob at a hotel, and then they ignore it, come in and make up your room? My last hotel used a technique that seems a bit hokey to me, but it really ought to work: you stick the privacy sign right into the slot for the magnetic card to open your door. The privacy notice seems precariously held in place, but you know that a cleaning person is certain to notice it! They have to take it out to put their own card in and open the room.
(They made up my room anyway. Argh!)

A thousand movies in the palm of your hand- at what price?

Holographic storage, and other kinds of optical storage are inching closer to practicality. Optical storage offers the prospect of much, much greater data density, and much faster access to the data. Perhaps in ten years you will be able to buy an optical device that fits in the palm of your hand and contains 1,000 complete movies. What should the purchase price BE for such an item, considering that it might be easily mass-produced? It seems unreasonable to sell it for the retail value of all the movies, perhaps $30,000.

When CDs first became ubiquitous there was a similar issue with software. Many useful programs were smaller, and CDs could be sold with 200 programs on them. Columnist John Dvorak considered how to price these things and recommended the following rule: assume that a consumer will eventually use about 5% of what's on the CD, and therefore sell it for 1/200th of its retail value.

Since then, other practical solutions have emerged, for example:

(1) Sell a mass of items on CD, but in a "locked" form, such as shareware demo software. The consumer eventually pays retail to unlock the full capabilities of each item that is seriously used.

(2) Magnificent BLOAT! Programs (and also movies) come with larger files now, making it harder to invent the device that will store 1,000 of them. Movies come with higher resolution (more data), outtakes, commentary, multiple languages, all designed to fill up the available storage.

It's quite interesting that the same cannot be done for songs. Although they could be distributed in higher fidelity, hardly any consumer has the ears and equipment to hear the difference. Eventually bands will release multiple performances of songs together. (Jazz afficionados appreciate multiple takes, and good radio jazz hows will often play the "other" performances that were not released after a studio recording session.) The only other thing to try (I suspect) is to make songs considerably longer. But Western Civilization seems to have preferred (for hundreds of years) songs that are either two to five minutes long, or songs that have a repeating melody for each of many verses, or MacArthur Park.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The Puzzle of Cyndi Lauper:

In the mid 80's, Cyndi Lauper was the top rock singer, with an unheard of string of hits at a time when Rock-world USA seemed to have room for exactly one star female. Then there was this disturbing music video of a woman who moved sexually, wore underwear outside her clothes and sang conventionally; Madonna knocked Lauper off her perch. Madonna's fashion sense differed dramatically from Lauper's:
Somebody did complain to me and tell me that my clothes were so loud they couldn't hear me sing. - C.L.
Lauper took a few years off to follow the pro wrestling world, but otherwise she has been singing ever since to varying degrees of critical acclaim and some commercial success.

I saw an interview on TV, and it was quite striking that she could barely produce coherent sentences. Was she - when talking instead of singing - suffering from stage fright? Having a bad day?
I get the greatest feeling when I'm singing. It's other-worldly. Your feet are anchored into the Earth and into this energy force that comes up through your feet and goes up the top of your head and maybe you're holding hands with the angels or the stars, I have no idea. - C.L.
Cognitive dissonance jarred. Could this be the creative genius behind every aspect of all those hits?
You know, I do speak the Queens English. It's just the wrong Queens that's all. It's over the 59th Street Bridge. It's not over the Atlantic Ocean. - C.L.
Her great mid-80's songs all showcase her piercing, adenoidal, emotion-laden voice.
When I got hoarse, the manager would say, 'Drink this. Joplin used to drink this,' and I used to say, 'Joplin? Joplin's dead. - C.L.
But there's wonderful variety and imagination in her songs. Did she write the melodies? The harmonies? The arrangements? The lyrics? Did she direct the band?
If you're lost you can look - and you will find me
Time after time
If you fall I will catch you - I'll be waiting
Time after time.
- Lyrics
"Time after Time" is a beautiful, quiet, reflective song. "He's so Unusual" is so unusual. "Shebop", her reassuring song about masturbation, was only a little controversial.
they say I better get a chaperone
Because I can't stop messin' with the danger zone
- Lyrics
The hits are all imaginatively different. (In contrast, I remember Chris Cross explaining that the way he wrote a second hit was to write exactly like the first one, and he was puzzled that nobody seemed to care.)
And I wonder: Is Cyndi Lauper just a well-packaged fine singer? Is she indeed the brilliant artist behind the music, the lyrics, the arrangements and performance? Where, in between, might the truth lie?
I got discouraged because I used to think that dance music was very innovative, and then I found out it wasn't and I got real discouraged. I found that mostly remixers wanted to take ballads and rewrite them, but if you wrote a dance song they never want to do that because it's too obvious that it's a dance song. (quoted from an interview.)
So here's the puzzle of Cyndi Lauper. (The random quotes are copied from this and related pages.)

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The TSA, “Secure Flight”, and the no-fly list:

The report of the Secure Flight Privacy/IT Working Group is public, and Bruce Schneier, who was on the review committe, has a thoughtful (and troubling) overview of issues the report raises. Ed Felton, who was also on this committee, raises similar issues.

“Secure Flight” is the TSA’s next plan for, among other things, matching passengers with names on the Watch List and No-Fly List. Among the issues are:

  • The TSA has not stated the goals of this program.
  • The TSA has produced no comprehensive plan for overseeing the program.
  • The TSA has produced no rules for protecting their data, or removing items from it.

Schneier ends this piece with his lovely mantra about the no-fly list:
Remember what the no-fly list is. It's a list of people who are so dangerous that they can't be allowed to board an airplane under any circumstances, yet so innocent that they can't be arrested -- even under the provisions of the PATRIOT Act.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Remembering those Old Ampex 40MB Disk Drives…

If you're aware of bits of computer history, you've probably heard how people created printouts to play songs on the IBM 1403 printer. The printer made a lot of noise that could be controlled by the forcing its print hammers to hit the character-chain-belt in specific sequences. I remember a very nice 1403 rendition of "She'll be Coming 'Round the Mountain."
Less well known are the Ampex 40MB drives which, for a short time in the 1970's, were the largest reasonably priced drives. They were about the size of a clothes dryer and sat on four wheels. There was enough momentum from the motion of the disk read/write heads to make the drives move. One fellow I knew wrote a program to control them like a remote model car, "driving" them all around the computer room.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Pack the laptop last ...

On business trips I carry a laptop from place to place, always unpacking it, using it, and packing it again. I live in dread of forgetting one of its essential parts: the A/C cord, the mouse, the funny little edge connector that lets me access a LAN.

I've decided that the key thing is to pack the accessories first, and the laptop last. I can't possibly walk off with a practically empty case containing only the accessories, can I? Can I? (My wife smiles all too knowingly at this point ...)

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Long Pointer to ...

The Insititute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, has received $25 million donation from the Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences, started by Microsoft star and billionaire Charles Simonyi, according to this article.
In return, the IAS will change its acronym to lptsmIAS (long pointer to smart minds Institute for Advanced Study).

Sorry, the donation is real, but the rest was a software joke.

Friday, September 23, 2005

I think that I shall never see:

I think that I shall never see a cable tower that looks like a palm tree. But I should see them! Somebody should tell the cable industry that a silly looking deciduous cable tower is even more out of place than usual in San Diego, but a tall ersatz palm tree might actually pass.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Pictures worth a thousand words (after you read the words):

Some pictures are not worth a thousand words until they're explained to you. I've been reading how astronomers recently realized that our galaxy is not (currently) a "spiral" galaxy, but rather a "spiral bar" galaxy. And I've seen several pictures of this spiral bar form without being able to see the difference. Where's the bar?

The October issue of Scientific American, p. 44, had another perplexing (to me) picture of this galaxy shape, but fortunately there was an explanation: "A barred galaxy looks like a lawn sprinkler where the water flows through a straight tube, emerges at right angles and then curves around." Okay, NOW the picture is worth a thousand words to me.
(Incidentally, if you've got this issue, you can see that I removed a possibly incorrect and misleading comma from the quoted sentence. I'd love to link to the magazine picture, but I cannot find it online.)

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

I know I don't want ...

One of the links on my blogroll points to a guy who thinks he might want to be a standup comedian. One of the reasons I enjoy his blog is that I know I don't want to be a standup comedian. Here's how I found out:

Comedians often talk about the importance of "timing" in comedy. When I was young, I had it. Timing is not easy to explain, but I can tell you that when I told a joke, I knew the precise moment in time that, if I hit the punch line, my listeners would laugh much harder than otherwise. And as soon as that punchline began to evaporate, I could perceive the next moment, a short distance in the future, at which, again, those around me would roar with laughter, if only I could say anything slightly funny at that moment.

As a teenager, I became a slave to that sense of timing. I would make up any joke to hit the punch on time. I would make fun of things I believed in, poke fun at the enemies of my enemies. By the time I was 18, I was painfully ashamed of myself for sucking up to that next big laugh. On my 19th birthday, I stopped listening to my sense of timing. I sat on it for a year, refusing to respond to it, until it pretty much went away. And I was no longer ashamed.

Years later I realized that, had I had serious comic potential, I would have discovered the comedian's solution to my problem. I would have developed MATERIAL, jokes and routines that I could be proud of, to meet the demands of my sense of timing.

But I didn't, and so I'm not.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Internet Over the Phone Line?

On my last business trip I chose a place to stay because it was the only one with high speed Internet access in the room. I unpacked my computer and looked at the instructions:

  1. Connect an RJ45 cable to your computer.
  2. Turn on your computer. It's that simple.

There was a diagram showing a computer and a cable. There was an RJ45 cable on the table in my room. I attached it to my laptop, and stuck the other end in an appropriate socket in the telephone.

Nothing happened.

I looked dubiously at the phone. It had one thin wire coming out of it into the wall. For both voice and LAN? I called the desk and explained I didn't think my connection was working. I was told a technician would come to my room right away (at 9:30 PM!). Sure enough, a guy arrived in two minutes. He examined the situation carefully and took out another RJ45 cable, which he used to connect the telephone to the LAN outlet in the wall.

Duh. Why didn't I notice the LAN socket in the wall? I could have connected my computer directly to THAT.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Un****! (Expletive deleted)

Here's a modest contribution to the English language, courtesy of my family. Take this situation for example: Someone is settling down in bed for a nice comfy read, but the book falls onto the floor and bounces out of reach. That someone might well say "****!"
But now you pick the book up and hand it over. Since you've solved the problem, you say "Un****!" And you both feel better about the whole thing.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

A little night light in your motel room:

You may not feel the same, but I don't like my (hm)otel room to be pitch dark when I sleep. The easy solution is to leave the bathroom light on and the door open a bit, but that doesn't work when the bathroom light switch also turns on a loud, noisy fan.

I found another solution. If you have one of those tiny, powerful LED lights on your keyring, just point it away from you and leave it on all night.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Why change Them?

At an airport I saw this ad, a picture of a little baby in a diaper, from Philips. The ad asked: "Things start uncomplicated. Why change them?" At once the answer came to me: Because, if you don't change them, they will get uncomfortable and smelly, and develop diaper rash.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

I may have attacked the Pill Pack problem!

We hate it - or at least, I hate it - when vitamins and pills are packaged in blister packs with thick paper backing. We’re expected to pull the itsy bit of paper loose somehow, then tear it off, then finally we can puncture the aluminum foil and get ONE pill out.

Allow me to report an EXCITING discovery!

With care, you can pull an entire sheet of paper backing off of thirty or so pills ALL IN ONE PIECE! This hardly takes longer than freeing two pills, and it’s kind of fun to do. Don’t let those “per pill” perforations limit you, think big! Then you’ll have a sheet of many pills, in their neat rectangular rows, easily accessible beneath the thin foil when you need them.

(If you need your pills to be safe from kids, don't try this until they grow up.)

Monday, September 12, 2005

My first portable PC computer:

I saw my first Compaq portable in 1985. (I had actually developed software on oddball portable computers since 1978.) My workgroup was one PC short, and the Compaq was offered to us as a loaner. I had to drive to another building to pick it up, and then I had to wait twenty minutes while they figured out how to hand it to me. A strong steel chain secured it, making it very unportable. I thought it ironic to see a portable computer immobilized, but my coworkers assured me there was a lot of corporate theft in that building.

I may not be able to blog much during the next seven days, but I'll hope for the best ...

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Elevators at rest: Open or closed?

When you get off an elevator, if no one else is ringing for it, it might stay at the current floor, return to ground floor, or go to some other place to minimize the probable delay when it’s next called. But it will stop at some floor awaiting a command.

Generally, when an elevator is at rest like this, it will be closed. (If there is a bank of elevators, then on the main floor it might stay open.) I think this is one aspect of the human/machine interface that the designers got right. Imagine that you’re on the fifth floor of some building, you walk over to the elevator, and it’s just standing there open. Might that seem creepy? Would you wonder if it was working?

Friday, September 09, 2005

Planning for disasters: NOT!

The New York Times has a front page story today with two flabbergasting admissions about our government’s planning for emergencies. I just can’t believe it. The story is here; it will soon be accessible only for $$.

The first admission is:
“Hurricane Katrina had exposed a critical flaw in the national disaster response plans created after the Sept. 11 attacks. According to the administration's senior domestic security officials, the plan failed to recognize that local police, fire and medical personnel might be incapacitated.”

Can you believe that? I’ll bet EVERY serious study of emergency preparedness (such as earthquake studies in San Francisco) knows better than to assume that local police, fire and medical personnel are not as affected by the disaster as everyone else.

The second admission is equally amazing: During the flood, feds realized that there were legal problems affecting centralized control. For example, the easiest way to send in army forces required President Bush to pre-empt the Louisiana Governor taking away her control and (gulp) responsibility.
"Can you imagine how it would have been perceived if a president of the United States of one party had pre-emptively taken from the female governor of another party the command and control of her forces … ?”

Well let me tell you how the imagining should have taken place. You “play act” disaster scenarios in advance, with people seriously thinking out the roles of each key participant. That’s how you discover these chain-of-command “gotchas” for sure. We’ve been spending billions to prepare against terrorist attacks, but apparently we’ve skipped the “serious thought” part.

In general, I do not like to second-guess emergency responses, because hindsight is such a powerful obscurant, but these two admissions are simply unacceptable.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

The Katrina Detainees?

A lot of assertions – all in need of careful evaluation – suggest that many of Katrina’s victims are being treated more like detainees than victims in need of aid. I hope they are in the minority. Here are a few miserable links (all from BoingBoing). I hope these reports are all, somehow, wrong:

  • Volunteers have created an emergency radio station to broadcast useful info to the people in the Astrodome. The FCC (which has the only legal jurisdiction) has approved it, but relief officials have blocked it nonetheless.
  • Are there "Rape, murder, and beatings" in the Astrodome?
    (There’s also a lockdown at the Astrodome, hardly anyone in or out.)
  • In Falls Creek, Oklahoma, a hurricane shelter is being operated (by FEMA, I think) more like a prison. People are not being allowed out to go to church, and people are not allowed to bring extra food to the victims, who are being given two meals a day.
  • A BoingBoing reader comments that the victims are going to need a lot of psychiatric help, but of course psychiatrists are not being asked to join the recovery effort, only the other sorts of doctors.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Sneaking a weapon onboard:

I thought it was amusing when my son tried to bring a machete knife onto a plane - it was a juggling knife, not a weapon - but of course the security people did not seem to agree with him.

I thought it was amusing (this happened many years ago on a domestic flight) when I saw a family waiting for twenty minutes to board, while security decided whether their fifteen foot long elephant tusk was a weapon. (They were allowed to carry it on the flight. It was slightly curved, pointed at one end, and wrapped in brown wrapping paper.)

But I was unamused and worried at Tel Aviv Airport when security said they had found a weapon, a pointed metal object, in one of our carry-on bags. Fortunately my wife quickly realized they were x-raying an antiquity we had purchased, a 3,000 year-old spear head. The security agent examined the delicate object and then let us take it on board.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Red, Yellow, Green (Blue?):

When designing computer products in the 1980’s we wrestled with the Swiss ergonomic standards for the use of colored lights. Are your eyes starting to glaze over already? I’m actually introducing you to a fascinating philosophical topic. The basic idea is that when a product lights up to tell you something, it should tell you:

  • Green: safe, okay
  • Yellow: warning
  • Red: danger.

So suppose you’re designing a floppy disk drive. It will have a light that flashes whenever data is being written or read. What color should the light be?
In this case one purpose of the light is to tell you when NOT to remove the floppy disk, so yellow is a good idea. Red would convey the wrong message (it’s not dangerous or bad to read the data).

My cell phone has a status light that’s on as long as the phone is on. Why is it red?

What got me thinking about this is I my new USB memory stick that lights up a pretty blue to tell me not to remove it from the computer. (It’s okay to remove it when the light is off.) Why blue? Strictly a cosmetic issue I think; the Swiss standard would suggest red in this case. (Or alternatively, green to show that the memory stick is working okay.)

Next time you see a status light of any kind, have fun deciding what color it should be to conform to the Swiss standard. It’s a pleasant parlor game, and you’ll find lots of tough cases.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

A flexible teenager:

I've tried various sleeping positions on a plane, but I doubt I was ever flexible enough to do this: I saw a young man, about seventeen, fast asleep sitting in his plane seat with his head flat on a thin pillow he had placed on the tray that folds down from the seat in front. His ear was about three inches from his knees.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

I can't pack light anymore.

For a short trip, I used to throw a few things into a bag and leave. But now I always seem to pack a lot of stuff. One reason is that I'm older; I need more stuff, and I remember times I missed bringng x or y, so I'll pack those.

But the real villain is my wonderful packing list. I go through my spreadsheet listing everything I might need for the most complex of trips and ... oh, I might as well take that, this, the other, those, these and etc. And so my bigger suitcase fills up, just in case.

Friday, September 02, 2005

The Second Amendment is not doing very well this week.

"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
There has long been a slight difference of opinion between those who see the second amendment as enabling the government to add quickly to its regulating forces, and those who see it as enabling a free people to arm themselves against an unjust government.


If the intention of our founding fathers was to make it easy for wandering bands of upstarts to arm themselves, shooting at police, soldiers and rescue missions, then our founding fathers were a bunch of idiots. Currently, perhaps it's too easy to steal, keep and bear arms.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Would this be a good time to sell part of the Louisiana Purchase back to the French?

I believe I'm not the only person thinking the "unthinkable", that perhaps New Orleans should not be rebuilt. Or at least, New New Orleans ("New Orleans 2" if you prefer) should be built on higher ground. Whether you believe in global warming or not, we're clearly having some very warm years in which the sea level will rise. Wicked hurricanes are currently much more common than they used to be, and hurricanes like Katrina, called a "once in a lifetime event" by many, could happen again soon. (Make that twice in a lifetime. Remember the even stronger Camille?) The residents of New Orleans and its surround are experiencing a horrible tragedy. If we encourage them to live in the same place again, will they have to live through it yet again?
There's also a concern that flooded chemical plants in the area are leaking, making New Orleans Pond a "toxic soup." Gasoline and unearthed coffins could make matters even worse (see video link in the same article). Might not be a good idea to live there for awhile.