Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Dr. Doolittle, the books:

Hugh Lofting wrote about a dozen Dr. Doolittle books. I hope they are little read today. He was an extreme misogynist and anti-intellectual. Pretty much the only female in the books who is not a dreadful stereotype is the wise old parrot. He was very much anti-science and against virtually all engineering improvements the 20th century might offer. Add to that a light touch of racism and you were all set. I loved those books as a child and read them over and over. Their delightful characters, fun plots, outlandish locales, imaginative illustrations and ventures into science fiction were a great pleasure. Reading at an impressionable age, I’m very lucky not to have picked up the author’s biases. At least I think I didn’t.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

PDA Categories:

I bought my first PDA because I just felt I had to have one. When it arrived, I set it up, looked at it, and wondered, "Now what?"
PDAs are general purpose computers. You have to customize them to make them really useful. Over time, the most important customizing I've done is to figure out where to put information. I'm going to describe my favorite ideas here, not because I think you should use them, but to inspire you - if you have a PDA, or you're thinking about one - to imagine the best organization that fits your mind.

There are people I visit rarely. I always had to ask for driving directions. Then I figured out where to put the directions so I could find them again - as a "note" attached to their entry in my address book.

Over time I've saved a ton of memos on my PDA. Some important categories are:
Howto: Where I look for detailed instructions on how to make my Doctor's office to admit he's an hour behind schedule, or how to make Turkish coffee, or how to reprogram TiVo's 30 second skip.
Todo: books to read, movies to see, things to ask my doctor, gift ideas, etc.
Trip: every trip has notes about hotel phone numbers and - often - local stores. Very handy when I go to the same place again.

PDAs are also a decent place to put secret information (credit card and bank numbers, passwords, etc.) There are dozens of PDA applications offering to keep such information well-encrypted, in case your PDA falls into the wrong hands.

PDAs are also good for dead time. When you're impatiently online or onhold, ask yourself what you'd rather be doing at the same time. There's a good chance there's a PDA shareware program that'll let you do it, whether it's reading a book, playing chess, or memorizing French verbs.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Bruce Schneier is Speechless:

Security expert Bruch Schneier noted: “An appeals court in Minnesota has ruled that the presence of encryption software on a computer may be viewed as evidence of criminal intent. I am speechless.”

Commenters at his blog indicated that it’s not quite so simple. The actual ruling is a careful one. Here’s the key text in the actual appeals ruling “The record shows that appellant took a large number of pictures of S.M. with a digital camera, and that he would upload those pictures onto his computer soon after taking them. We find that evidence of appellant’s internet use and the existence of an encryption program on his computer was at least somewhat relevant to the state’s case against him.”
The fact is however, that all computers on the internet have encryption software, and the encryption program on defendant’s computer, PGP, is routinely included on a large number of modern computers. It would be hard to find anyone accused of a crime, whose computer does not, on this account, increase his presumption of guilt.

If we learn anything obvious from this ruling, it’s that we should avoid the appearance of guilt by sending all our private information unencrypted over the internet where anyone can capture it. It’s reasonable for Dr. Schneier to be speechless.

Perhaps what we should really learn is that it's going to be a rocky legal system for the next thirty years. By then, judges should generally be more knowledgable about computer technology.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Dumb America?

In this column, John Dvorak discusses a common tendency to ask simple questions instead of running an internet search to get answers. Dvorak thinks it’s a sign of stupidity and lack of basic training that causes people to fail to think of searching.
I disagree. Our minds are not built to say “Internet first!” We’re also discouraged from this “search first” mindset by the numerous frustrating, time-wasting, traumatic searches we’ve all experienced. It takes a while to learn which topics are amenable to searching.
I had a smart friend who would often come to me with programming questions. I would invariably turn to Google and search for one or two of the words in his question plus the word “tutorial”, almost always finding a great answer. But it took him awhile to realize that he didn’t have to ask me first. And bear in mind, he and I (and you and thou) had spent many years in the recent dark ages where we often were dependent on the knowledge of our friends.

Monday, May 23, 2005

The 20th Century got Louder and Louder:

There were few cars and little loud music a hundred years ago. If you listen to pop music recordings even into the 1950’s, what you’ll hear is delicate compared to modern sound, including the early rock songs that were denounced (at the time) as loud and pounding. Society all around us has gotten louder too. It’s not just the power sound systems, but also the pervasive trucks and cars and machines.
In the early 1970’s music seemed to have gotten as loud as it could get, but it continued to increase in volume. What we might call “natural” sounds decay quickly after they are sounded; that is, with the exception of instruments like the organ, each sound is at its loudest at first, and then dies away. But electronically enhanced music need not decay. More and more, every sound played by a band just stayed there at its loudest until it stopped.
Classical music does not use this sort of electronic sound much, but even classical music got much louder in the last hundred years. Perhaps it had to, to get our attention in a loud century. Recordings have been preserved, and it’s easy to hear the trends.

Last night I was at a banquet dinner. Hundreds of people were all talking at once in an enormous room, and it seemed to me that I was having a typically 21st century LOUD experience. Then I asked myself: what happened a hundred years ago when you put 300 happy people into a big room? Did they make the same amount of noise? If they did, would it have seemed much louder and less natural to them than it does to us? Or did they somehow, because their civilization was different, talk more quietly or not all at once? Would I have been amazed to be at a similar banquet a hundred years ago?

Sunday, May 22, 2005

The right full-length movie for your mobile phone:

Nokia thinks that people will want to watch full length movies like The Shawshank Redemption on their mobile phones. This is one misguided idea! Here's the sort of full-length movie to show people on their mobile phones: Let people with camera phones view their actual life-in-progress, with a selectable time-delay! In other words: time-shift reality. (If this doesn’t make sense to you, you’re not very introspective.)

Saturday, May 21, 2005

The big media companies have something precious and you’re desperate for it!

The big media companies have figured out that the music and films they produce are, and will always be, what people can’t live without. That’s why they're looking into such draconian measures as a DVD player that might require your fingerprint to let you play a DVD. (Of course you’d have to buy a new DVD player to play these new DVDs. If, somehow, this new system is sold and not hacked at once, I think that other less paranoid sources of music and film will quickly steal the market from the old companies. Intellectual Property expert Ed Felton calls this idea for tight control over IP “creepy”.

The story is also over at Slashdot, whose commenters tend to be about one tenth as intelligent as the stories themselves. Still, they’re taking some good shots at this topic:

  • Can I just use the finger that I found at Wendy's?
  • what if you wanted to buy a gift for somebody? {You’re supposed to set your fingerprint in the store when you buy it.}
  • How about on-line purchases?
  • The computer makes it possible to do, in half an hour, tasks which were completely unnecessary before.
  • I don't trust any person at electronics stores with my SS#, why would I trust them with [my finger print]?
  • So, after dad dies, I'm gonna hafta keep his finger around to view his porn collection?
  • The finger is nice but, how about I give them a stool sample.
  • Why not just use what they're already going to force on us. Link the DVD to your national ID.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Style Guides are a little behind the times?

Here’s a punctuation question that’s been bothering me ever since I started blogging.
I checked out The Elements of Style by William Strunk, and some online style pages. I did not find my issue addressed, although in part this is truly not a new question:

When should terminal punctuation go inside the HTML tag?

For example, here’s a word in italics, just before the period. I’m sure I’m right that the period itself should not be in italics. Here’s a URL link just before the end of the sentence. I’m also pretty sure the period should not be part of the link (notice it was not underlined like the word ‘sentence’), but I’m not sure that that should always be the case. For example: Are there exceptions?

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Fog versus Mist:

Fog and mist, what’s the diff? I distinguish them as follows: Mist is a big cloud that has extended down to the ground. If you flew up a few hundred feet, you’d still be inside the mist cloud. Fog is a low-lying pocket of condensed water droplets. If you flew up a bit, you'd be in the clear, looking down on the fog, and up to the sky or to the clouds above.

However that’s not the official difference. According to the World Meteorological Organization, fog reduces visibility to less than 1 km by water droplets suspended in the air. Mist - not as precisely defined - causes less reduction in visibility. I think my distinction is more romantic, and more fun to use.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The Web is forever:

The White House wants Newsweek to do more to repair the damage from their possibly false Quran report. But this is the age of the Web. Stories that prove a point, anyone's point, never die. The story will be quoted from source to source forever.
Way back in 1981 or so, if people were convinced that someone was writing emails and posting news stories that were unfounded and malicious, there were Internet Gurus who could cause that person's writing to be removed from every Internet server within a few minutes. They used this power rarely, and when they did, people complained (quite reasonably) that perhaps such a power should NEVER be used. But those days are over. Will there ever again be a way to expunge clearly false information from the web?

Monday, May 16, 2005

Awful Cynicism:

I was only fifteen when I was greatly upset by cynicism in the Hamilton Violin Company's brochure.Hamilton sold violins to young, eager beginning students at low (for a violin!) prices. The most expensive model was the $450 Genuine Stradivarius Model. This model claimed to be an exact copy of a particular Strad, right down the the faithful reproduction in the body of some damage repair that had been done to the original. I'd heard some Hamiltons, and I did not believe for a moment that these mass-produced violins would sound like a Strad. Here's what the catalog said:
"Do not expect your Stradivarius model violin to sound like a genuine Stradivarius ..." I wish the sentence had ended there, but it didn't. Here's the whole sentence:
"Do not expect your Stradivarius model violin to sound like a genuine Stradivarius for the first few weeks." The catalog went on to explain that you had to break the violin in first.
Please try to put yourself in the place of the person who wote that sentence. I did, and it still bothers me.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

If you’d like to redo and discard, click NO (huh?):

Have you ever experienced a computer message box like this: It asks you a question, offers you some standard choices like OK and CANCEL, and then explains how you should decide what to select? Here’s an example:

THE MESSAGE BOX TEXT: You have made changes to your document. If you navigate away from this page, changes will not be saved. Do you want to keep your changes?

(The actual choices are: OK, CANCEL.)

MORE TEXT: Press OK to abandon your changes, CANCEL to stay on this screen so you can save them.

The main observation here is that the button captions should have been clear, perhaps: ABANDON CHANGES/NAVIGATE AWAY and STAY ON THIS SCREEN. Then no further explanation would be necessary. And I’ve seen much worse than this involving three buttons.

So where’s the villain here? The villain is the Microsoft programming interface for Windows, which makes it real easy to program a message box with standard button labels, and HARDER to program a message box with non-standard button labels. When the programmer gets a bug report saying that the button labels are unclear, a quick change is made to explain the labels, instead of the greater effort of relabeling the buttons. I confess; I’ve committed this programming sin myself. Sigh

Friday, May 13, 2005

Oy, ure Ti!

I'm a fairly fast few-fingered typist, but I have a tendency to type pairs of letters in reverse order. Usually these typos are painfully obvious, but recently I looked in puzzlement at a comment I had written in my program:

/* find the desired time. */

The comment made no sense in context. Reading the code carefully, I corrected it to:

/* find the desired item. */

Two reverse letter-pairs in a row, creating a genuine word. Now that’s a record (fro em, anyway)!

Thursday, May 12, 2005

You’re it!

I’ve blogged about strategies for addressing email TO, CC, and BCC. A colleague commented: “I have a much simpler strategy. I put the one person who has to do something on the TO list, and CC everyone else.”
Life is not so simple for me, but I’m now inspired to want FOUR classes of email addressees:

Tea, Tannin & Canker sores:

If you’re afflicted by lip and mouth sores, you may be aware of products on the market intended to ameliorate your suffering. The active ingredient of some of these is tannin, which is much more readily (and gently) available in regular tea. Just brew up some tea and make sure each mouthful comes into contract with your sores before you swallow. You may be pleasantly surprised.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Why I carry a lot of keys:

Like many people, I carry a key ring full of keys. Now I know why. Not for the first time, a pair of pants developed a hole in the key ring pocket. I lost a nickel, three pennies and a quarter before I figured this out, but my key ring was much too large to fit through the hole! Is it a Murphy's law thing that of all my pockets, it's the one with the keys that gets the hole? I don't think so, it's more like cause and effect - those sharp keys poking away at the fabric.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Limericists, Roll up your Sleeves!

There’s a cooperative project on the Internet to write original limericks that define each and every word defined in the OED. If you fancy your limericking ability, or you know someone who does, this is no time to withhold your skills. A lot of work lies ahead, they are only up to words beginning with (roughly) Ac. See The OEDILF Website for details.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Irresponsible programming.

I’m glad I’m not the programmer whose software failed to warn operators at Ten Mile Island how serious their emergency was. There were greatly mitigating circumstances for this software failure, but I’d generally rather work on projects where the implications of failure are far less serious. I can remember an embarrassing case where my irresponsible programming cost my company an expensive repair. Fortunately they did not take it out of my pay.

I needed to communicate some data trends by drawing very large, detailed diagrams. My boss showed me a little-used piece of equipment we had, a “plotter” (a kind of printer) with a thirty inch wide printing bed. A monstrous roll of paper fed the plotter, which could thus draw pictures 30” by ANY LENGTH in size, just what I needed.

Programming the plotter was simple. You issued commands to raise and lower its pen some distance. You issued commands to move the pen in any direction. If you lowered the pen far enough to touch the paper and then commanded it - or the paper - to move, you drew a line.
In my first debugging session, I told the plotter to move the pen about a quarter of an inch below the surface of the paper and then to draw a graph. The plotter dutifully lowered the pen into the inch-thick sheet metal bed below the paper and engraved my graph in the metal. (My engraving did look pretty, I must say.) We had to buy a new metal bed, the most expensive part of this expensive plotter.
In the many years since then, as you can imagine, I’ve often wondered whether the manufacturer might just, perhaps, pretty please, have made it impossible to lower the pen into the metal. Or, to look on the bright side, I could claim I was one of the first people to do three-dimensional printing!

Friday, May 06, 2005

The Extinct Species of Computer Operator:

Until some time in the early 1970’s, almost all computer systems were mainframes that required a special profession: “Computer Operator.” To this day there are specialized large systems that require special operators, but the operators from the late 1950’s to about 1975 were a unique breed: Requiring no more than a high school diploma (if that), a little smarts and the ability to do many rote activities reliably, this profession allowed many young people, post office mail carriers and other drudge workers to move quickly into a world of prestige and undreamed-of modest wealth.
The typical mainframe computer room was full of equipment that was easy to operate until it (rarely!) failed, but could easily be destroyed through mishandling. Consequently it was essential to keep the users of computers out of the computer room, and let the trained operators run them. In great demand, operators were paid somewhat less than programmers.
There were always elaborate procedures to enable users to submit their software “jobs” and, hours later, get their output. (Interacting directly with a computer program was almost unheard of.)
I remember one mail carrier who quit the post office because he had some initiative, eventually managing a whole staff of computer operators and doing quite well. I remember Tony, who suddenly found he and his wife could afford to build a custom home. When the builder balked at finishing agreed-upon changes, he told Tony, “I’m not going to do it and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Tony replied, “I’m only seventeen years old so my signature on the contract’s not binding, I’m not going to pay you another cent.” The builder finished the house Tony’s way.
When the Cape Canaveral Space Center opened, its computer room, in a fine government gesture, included mainframes from all the current major manufacturers. Each manufacturer contributed one of their finest operators to run this operation. IBM, generally paying high wages to avoid any impetus for its staff to unionize, was concerned about what would happen when these operators from the different manufacturers compared notes. I’m told that the IBM operator went into that room with the highest salary, because IBM had raised its computer operator payscale world-wide the month before.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Bong.     Bong        Bong.   Bong    Bong    Bong    Bong. BongBongBongBongBong….

Very early in computer history we had to deal with data that was too extensive to fit all at once inside a computer. The only solution for many years was to keep tapes full of data. A tape reel was about a foot in diameter and an inch wide. When a program needed to use a tape, it would print a request, in front of the computer operator, to load the tape. (The people who wrote programs were not permitted inside the computer room.) The operator would find and load the tape so the program could continue. Computer time was precious; it was frustrating to all when the operator failed to notice a tape request and idled the mainframe for an hour or two.
Princeton University solved this problem by adding a programmable LOUD GONG to the computer room. They told us how to add a simple routine to our programs to ring the gong after printing a tape request. Fine. Although it must be said, operators occasionally failed to hear the gong.
About two weeks later one professor wrote a program that rang the gong; then ten seconds later it rang the gong twice; then four times; then a hail of gong-shots until the desired tape was mounted. We loved this idea and everybody borrowed his program.
A few days later, faced with a united protest from all the operators, the university removed the gong.

I’ve dealt with many amazing and wonderful computer devices in my life, but I miss the gong.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Painter or Paintee?

Next Monday I will be helping to interview a fine pianist on our local radio station. She has been concertizing vigorously for about fifteen years and was recently mentioned in the New York Times.
Naturally I prepared by Googling the pianist’s name and checking out the first hundred or so references. Soon I clicked on a link and up came a large painting of a nude woman. Below the painting was the pianist’s name, the only text on the whole webpage. Non-plussed, I goggled. Finally I said to my self, “Self, before you ask the pianist about this picture, you’ve got to know whether she painted it, or whether she’s the subject.” Frantic web searches ensued. For some reason it was difficult to resolve the issue.
About five minutes later, light dawned. There is a painter whose last name is spelled almost exactly like the pianist’s, and they share the same first name. Google searches for either will yield info on both, partly due to misspellings on the web. In fact the painting had the correct name of the painter below it, but since I had found it by searching for the pianist’s name, I had not noticed the unexpected extra letter.

I shall not ask the pianist about the painting.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Beware the attack of the Zombie Auto-Blogs!

The next time you hear someone quote statistics about the millions of blogs, please tell them that their stats include hundreds, thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands of bogus, computer-generated zombie auto-blogs spouting gibberish, like this one: Vasectomy Reversal.
Click that link and you'll see all the worst characteristics of these zombies: meaningless (or rote-copied) text, a mindless author profile, multiple entries with closely-spaced date/times, and - obviously - no human being trying to communicate anything to you.

Clearly, Something Strange is going on, and whatever it is, it's polluting the blogosphere.

I've found many examples not quite as wasted at that first link, but just as zombie-like, for example, Car Accident, which seems to use text copied at random from elsewhere in a series of disjointed entries, such as "Mouse Over to learn more Bankcard model displayed on this site is by far your best option. If you have only one qualified rate". (That quote may have been lifted from this page at www.leoquinn.com.)
Now this next zombie, sugar-eyes, has a clear purpose. The title of every one of its stream-of-copied-consciousness entries links to an ad page at a web-site, mm-information.co.uk.
Radial-eskimo-fish-x, with its stupefying entries about Discount Inkjet Printer Ink Cartridge, China Eastern Airline, Adult Erotic Book, Used Police Car For Sale (etc.), similarly has entry titles that link to mmj-electronics. If you think for a moment that this blog has an author who’s trying to talk to you, try to read text like this: "...ely Free Sample Stuff Completely Free Sample Stuff links and resources. Freebieholics - UK Free Stuff ... here. Channels Home Free Stuff Competitions Ecards Shopping Games Forums Members Sub-Menu Tell-a- Friend Bookmark Us Contact Us T&C's / Privacy What we do.... Freebieholics shows you ... Free Magazines Have free sample issues of top quality magazines sent right to your door! Many of these offers also give you a subscription at a discount below news stand prices, or gifts for subscribing. ... Free stuff sample for baby Free stuff sample for baby herbal nutrition. Home ....." (And this text junk could have been cribbed from many web pages.)

Trampoline seems to be a coherent sample of the genre. Every item title links to an ad page at www.trampolined.co.uk; the item titles cover everything you might want to know about trampolines, and the text always matches the entry title. But with dozens of short textbook entries per day, computer generation is clearly at work.
Homeimprovementhowto is similar, except that in this blog each entry has NO TEXT. Again, the entry titles point to ad pages at another web site. Cardonations works the same way.

Contentmanagement is more primitive - entries without text, and entry titles that are broken links (or at least, were broken when I checked them). Perhaps some child failed to finish debugging his or her PERL Script this time.

These blogs all have a very primitive look, as if a basic blogger template is being used with no individualization. Perhaps they are intended to show up in web searches and boost the ranking of the sites they point to.

Anyway, Beware the attack of the Zombie Auto-Blogs! They're Here! They're Everywhere! Why are they permitted to exist, anyway?

Monday, May 02, 2005

Hey, I just made up some new Viola jokes:

Q: Why did Arnold Schönberg use violas in his Verklärte Nacht?
A: It was the best he could do, because he hadn’t invented atonal music yet.
Q: Why did Mozart score his Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola?
A: Because the Theremin hadn’t been invented yet,
Q: A violist and a soprano fall off a cliff; who hits the ground first?
A: The violist should have hit the ground first, but he missed it.
Q: What did paleontologists conclude when they found the fossil remains of a Tyrannosaurus Rex clutching a viola?
A: That the T. R. stunned its prey before killing it.
Q: What did paleontologists conclude when they found the 150 million-year-old shattered fossil remains of a sixty foot long viola?
A: That it knew how to fly, but not how to land.
Q: Why do many violinists think they can play viola?
A: They all know violists who think they can play the viola.
Q: Why aren’t there any viola solos in the last movement of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique?
A: Because witches really aren’t that bad.
Q: Why didn’t Mozart write any awful notes for the viola to play in his Musical Joke?
A: It wasn’t necessary to write out the awful notes..
Q: Why do violas exist?
A: To prove there's more to creation than Intelligent Design.
Q: What do you call a violist who also airbrushes photographs, and paints?
A: Archie, we miss you.
Q: What do you call a violist who also writes TV scripts for Lassie?
A: David, we really, really, really miss you.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

The Internet is like a highway (hmmm):

There’s a joke(?) floating around on the Internet, in which the writer imagines what real highways would be like if they were like the Internet. I wasn’t impressed with his imagination, so I’m going to take shot at it. Please supply more suggestions!
If highways were like the Internet:

  • If there was no room to park at your destination, they wouldn’t even let you go there in the first place.
  • Just before you reached your destination, you might discover (error 404!) it doesn’t exist.
  • If you got lost, you could quickly go home and start over. But sometimes home would inexplicably change to another place.
  • You could usually drive quickly back to your previous destination, just as it was in the past.
  • Most toll boths would require a name and a password (but no money).
  • It’d be hard to drive fast because you’d have to steer around the thousands of billboards that are right on the roadway. If you accidentally hit any of these signs, you’d suddenly find you’re somewhere else.
  • The speed limit would routinely be faster in the city than the country.
  • Some places you visit would try to puts lots of extra drivers in your vehicle, to make it go elsewhere.
  • Traffic would often go one way at a time.
  • The more you drove around, the more your vehicle would fill up with food (cookies, anyway).
  • Over time the highways would get faster and faster, and require less maintenance.
  • There would be only three kinds of cars, but they would offer frequent upgrades.
  • Some places would look weird if were driving the less common kind of car.
  • You’d never see red lights or stop signs. There would be intersections, but you’d never see them either.
  • Roads would remember the people who’ve driven on them, rather than the other way around.
  • Drivers who couldn’t spell well would wind up in Eastern Europe.
  • You could go to several places at once. You could go to the same place at once.
  • You could go to a place to get its map, rather than get a map to go to a place.
  • ”Road rage” would be a desire to destroy your own vehicle, not the other guy’s.
  • (Pig added:) If you accidentally mistook a similar sounding exit for the one you really wanted, everyone might be naked when you got there.