Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Do you cook Chinese Food?

If you like to cook Chinese or far east Asian food, here’s some good advice (1):
Instead of those insipid canned water chestnuts, or those frustrating-to-peel fresh water chestnuts, substitute: macadamia nuts.

Monday, February 27, 2006

A Sample Wunderlic Test:

I found a sample test online that is apparently used to test people's problem-solving ability, called the "Wunderlic Test." Apparently the NFL has long used this test to check people's abilities. The sample, at this web page,
seems to have a serious error in logic. Their preferred answer for problem #2 is not correct. Here's the problem:

2. Assume the first two statements are true.

The boy plays football. All football players wear helmets. The boy wears a helmet.

Is the final statement:

Not Certain

The correct answer (which they reject) is "Not Certain." The question SHOULD have been (to get their desired answer):

Assume the first three statements are true: The boy plays football. Anyone who plays football is a football player. All football players ALWAYS wear helmets. The boy wears a helmet.

I can't tell you - but maybe you already know - how frustrating it is to be tested on careful reasonaing ability by a test based on fuzzy reasoning.

Our Pleasing Progeny:

My mother’s mother lived to be more than ninety. She said: If you live long enough, you’ll get everything you want. And in her case, that may have been true. She also said:
You really start to enjoy your children when they become grandparents.
And she knew what she was talking about.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Who was first?:

Which did you see first: M*A*S*H the movie or M*A*S*H the TV show? I saw many, many episodes of the TV show before I saw the movie. I was used to Alan Alda's Hawkeye. When I saw the movie, at first I was put off by Donald Sutherland's Hawkeye, but after awhile I was just full of admiration for his acting.
Let's face it - Alan Alda is a tough act to precede.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Really quick, devastating putdowns:

Ignoring Oscar Wilde today, I'll mention a few favorite cases where someone came up, on the spot, with a brief but devastating response.
Bertrand Russell had explained, in a symbolic logic class, that if you start by assuming a false statement is true, you can prove anything. A student having trouble with this said, "Assume one equals two. Prove you're the Pope!" Russell said, "It's well known the Pope and I are two; therefore the Pope and I are one."
Someone once said to George Bernard Shaw, "Do you know that sugar and sumac are the only words in English where an initial "su" is pronouced like "shu"? "Shaw responded, "Sure."

And in the early days of computers four friends had just come together when one said "I've just been appointed head of the [state university] computer center." The youngest and brashest of the others said, "WHY?" The four of them stared at each other for a minute or two. There was nothing to say. They all walked off.

BoingBoing visitors: please enjoy my archives (on the left), my links (below left), and my other blog: RealidSucks.blogspot.com.

Friday, February 24, 2006

U.S. Ports Raise Proxy Problem:

I’ve borrowed security expert Bruce Schneier's title for his column on questions raised by the proposed management of six U.S. Ports by a Dubai-based company. I recommend reading the entire piece. Schneier argues that our prime tool for evaluating governmental security is transparency. His conclusion, in part:
"The solution is openness. The Bush administration needs to better explain how port security works, and the decision process by which the sale of P&O was approved. If this deal doesn't compromise security, voters -- at least the particular lawmakers we trust -- need to understand that. ... when it comes to government, trust comes through transparency and openness."

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Anagram Map of New York Subways:

Anagram Subway maps are all the rage today (my link points to one of Toronto, with stops like "Longest Twine" and "Butt Rash"). Here's a modest effort at anagramming the New York Subway System. I'm just doing part of line "1" (in red, Manhattan's west side) for now:
Damn Tyck Trees.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Don't unexclude anyone over thirty ...

Today I'd like to bring a fine quote to your attention, from a John Dvorak column in which he exhorts Academia (Sociology and Psychology, really) to start studying the internet before it's too late. In the column, "Academics: get to Work!" he says:
"When I was young we had this concept that you should never trust anyone over 30. Nowadays the new social mechanisms employed by teens and 20-somethings are so unfathomable to anyone over 30 that it's not a matter of not trusting anyone over 30 anymore. Anyone over 30 is excuded by default."

Well: if that were a really fine quote, I guess it would be a bit easier to read. Oscar Wilde, where are you?

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Color-Coded Cows:

At the moment I'm working in a pastoral part of Virginia. There are remarkably few trees but lots of pasture. I complained about the lack of trees - the few surviving specimens tend to be rather majestic - and my host remarked, "Got to make room for the cows!"
As we drove past a bunch of quiet cows, I asked my host whether they were grown for milk, or to be eaten.
"Both," he said.
"Ahh," I responded, a bit disappointed at this equivocation.
"The black and white ones are for dairy," he volunteered, "and ..."
"Don't tell me they're color-coded!" I exclaimed.
"The black ones," he continued, "Are Angus; they make good steaks."

So: color-coded cows. Why not?

Monday, February 20, 2006

Newsvine: Good news?

An interesting new web news site is currently in beta testing (and not generally open to the public). You can see its frustrating login page at: www.newsvine.com.

I believe the main ideas behind this site are:

  • They carry many news articles, feeds from major news agencies.
  • Newsvine users vote on which stories are more important, so readers tend to see the more popular stories.
  • Newsvine users add additional stories to the site as well. There's a one-button click to add any story you are browsing, and these are also voted on.
  • Newsvine users can also write their own columns at the site.

The site encourages informal tagging, so you can try to find, say, news stories about archeology or Japan or beef. And people can comment on every item, so that you're generally not reading a story in a vacuum, but (you hope) along with someone's sensible comment or explanation.

I think the popularity of the site will depend on whether people who keep a Newsvine window open will feel well-informed. (The headline mix certainly differs a bit from Yahoo or Reuters.) The site is boosting its readership gradually, to see how they scale up and how well their model works.

Newsvine does address one of my great concerns about news on the web. There are news sites that try to figure out what interests you, and show you similar stories. But who will try to show me important stories I would never have looked for? (Good newspapers do that all the time.) Well, perhaps Newsvine will, due to its reader voting mechanism.

If you're terribly curious about Newsvine, please email me; I have a few invitations to hand out.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

A Candle a day ...

Many years ago, in the 1970's in fact, the president of one minicomputer company suddenly "got religion." He started holding prayer meetings at the beginning of staff meetings, and he regularly placed votive candles on computers that were behind schedule. (Mini computers were built individually by hand in those days, honest.) Newspapers covered this story with glee, and subsquently reported that the prayers and candles seemed to be working. The company became more productive and met more of its deadlines.

Many years later, in the late 1980's in fact, I talked to a very fine hardware developer who had worked at that company. "Lou," I asked him, "did those prayers and candles really make a difference?"
"Well you've got to understand," said Lou, "NOBODY wanted a candle placed on their computer. The only way to avoid one, or get them off, was to stay on schedule. We worked hard to avoid those candles."

Saturday, February 18, 2006

My Failure to Imagine Real Success:

I've blamed almost every software group I've ever worked with for a failure to anticipate true success. I usually work on projects that cost a great deal, but are justified by business plans to sell the software to enormous numbers of people. At least that's what everyone says, but during the projects, no one asks questions like this:

  • How many dozens or hundreds of people will have to be trained to handle the help desk?
  • Could we cut that number in half by making the product less confusing?

I hope you understand what I mean. It takes guts to imagine a HORDE of people using your work, and to understand every implication of what that might mean.

So I can only blame myself for the same failure of imagination, when I started looking at podcasts. I worried about wasting my time trying to find just one I'd like. I worried about how much time I might spend copying podcasts to my player to hear them. But I never asked myself, what if I find dozens of podcasts I want to hear regularly?

The hours of podcasts that I download to my player increase every night. I'm much better off trying to read too many blogs, than trying to keep up with too many podcasts! I can speed-read, but I can't speed-listen. Why didn't I see this coming???

By the way, I'll be travelling for a few days, possibly blogging irregularly.

Friday, February 17, 2006

A Superfine, Golden Bullet anti-Cancer drug - at what price?

Apparently the drug Avastin shows promise treating several different cancers, but at $100,000/yr, doctors lament that its use will be limited. Let's take this issue to its natural extreme. Suppose some company produces a drug that simply and quickly cures most cancers. Can you imagine reading a story like the following in, say, 2026:
"In 2007, Company X released a very expensive cancer cure, effective against most of this dread complex of diseases. For ten years relatively few people could afford the treatment, and many cancer-sufferers died, untreated, prematurely ...

I think it's obvious: any company that develops a supremely effective anti-cancer drug must be prepared to give it away. Perhaps they will be reasonably rewarded by a gratetful world.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

A Really Intelligent Camera!

I listened to a review on the Web about a compact, state-of-the-art digital camera that talks to you, telling you when to do things, or warning you about problems. Naturally that made me imagine a Dirty Old Man buying such a camera, taping it to the bottom of his walking stick, visiting his public library and discreetly sliding the camera under the skirt of an adjacent young woman. As he prepares to press the camera's remote control to take his picture, a clear cold computer voice says, "Insufficient light, would you like to use the flash?"

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Founding Foundering Floundering Fathers Blathers

Alexander Hamilton ... Aaron Burr.
Harry Whittington ... Dick Cheney.

Um, I forget. What are we supposed to believe happened?

Oh, now I remember. Something about a weapon of mess destruction.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


A 12 year old boy has been charged with a felony for bringing sugar to school. If you read the linked story, it just gets weirder; apparently the boy has to be charged with a felony because the school can't be bothered to distinguish sugar from drugs.

I think this must be part of the "No Child's Left Behind" policy.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Software: Loss of Nerve

When I was 37, I joined a sort of startup, where I was the third employee. We needed more programmers, and there was much discussion of whom to consider. Employees one and two had worked together and had many friends in common. One day Number two suggested, "What about Harry X?"
Number one replied, "No, he's a good software guy, but he's lost his nerve."
Actually, we did interview Harry X and made him an offer, but he declined to join us, saying he did not think we would make it. At the time, that's what I thought "loss of nerve" was about, fear of working for a company that might quickly crash and burn; but I was wrong.

Loss of Nerve was waiting for me when I hit my mid-forties. Programmers continually face dreadfully new challenges, new ways of working, and new rules that must be learned to accomplish anything. We rely heavily on "Tunnel Vision" to help us adjust to avalanches of new information quickly, and there's always a completely incomprehensible crash waiting to be fixed at the last minute. I believe most programmers are optimists - if we weren't, we'd never believe we could accomplish anything - but that optimism gets scratched and scarred in the face of so many new and strange challenges.

Software "Loss of Nerve" refers to a fear of conquering the continuously new unknowns, and a preference to stay with anything tried, true and safer. If I had a nickel for all the times I've had to coach myself, saying "Come on, you can learn that API; you can find that bug!" Well, I'd have a lot of nickels.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Software "Tunnel Vision"

I wrote a short blog piece that I'll probably post tomorrow, and in it I refer to "Tunnel Vision." I decided to link that expression to an explanation of it, but a quick web search found only references to: A Sarah Paretsky novel, a vision deficiency, and a kind of unfortunate narrow-mindedness. The term Tunnel Vision is used quite admiringly in the software industry, but having failed to find an easy reference to this, I'm going to try to define it here.

Tunnel Vision:
(1) The ability to focus intuitively only on what is crucial and relevant to solve a problem. Another way to put the same thing is:
(2) The ability to ignore a distracting lack of knowledge while learning just enough to solve a problem.

For example, someone hands me a program I've never seen before and says "it crashes if you save a file after selecting "Help." If I feel I have to really study the program, understand its full design, how it works and what it does, in order to fix this bug, I'm a lousy maintenance programmer. I need to do something much faster: study just the parts of the program involved in Save and Help to find where it crashes and why.

Or again, someone hands me a Ruby program and asks me to add a function to it. I'm going to have to learn some Ruby, learn a new language processor, learn a new debugger, AND part of this program to modify it. When I'm finished, I won't know much about any of them. My Tunnel Vision will have focused on just enough to make my changes. Desiring to learn too much about Ruby and this program, are the distractions my Tunnel Vision must enable me to ignore.

Good Tunnel Vision is partly intuitive, partly developed through experience. It's easy to feel blocked by the need to assimilate too much knowledge, and it's deadly (because you make unwitting mistakes) to focus too narrowly. I'm sure Tunnel Vision is a great skill in many fields besides software. (You may find a short reference to this meaning of "Tunnel Vision" at Wikipedia. It's my first emendation to Wikipedia, and I'm expecting to get heavily edited...)

Extra credit: I learned from John Dvorak's blog that in Aurora, Illinois, a 12 year old boy has been arrested and suspended for bringing sugar (a "drug look alike") to school. I believe this is a case of the "no child's left behind" policy in action.

Friday, February 10, 2006

The FTC: Heavyhanded, or timely?

Here's a story about the FTC shutting down those companies selling people's private phone records. Obviously they SHOULD be shut down, but I'd rather that was done by showing a judge that what they're doing is probably illegal, getting warrants, raiding them and prosecuting. Instead the FTC seems to have warned them that what they are doing may be illegal. If it turns out that our sieve of laws does not make their activities illegal, then we're just witnessing another chill in freedom of expression.

Worse, if these companies had planned to make a buck until people caught on to them, they've been given a nice warning to hide the evidence and run.

Would you open yet another email from a person named):

Unstrung H. Absentee
Xochitl Cooper
Pompous D. Barenboim

And would you open up an email with these subject lines:
Corruption Dead
Re: daddy Incorporeal
I need some hlep
Farkle Testing (Oops, that wasn’t spam, only a beta release of a game called Farkle.)

How to talk to yourself:

It's important to know how to talk to yourself. I send myself email messages about all sorts of things I'll eventually want to remember. I send them to my gmail email account, because Google will (probably) keep my email easy to search for just about forever.
The tricky part is, where do I send these reminders FROM? If you play chess, and you like what's called a "perfect mate", you'll understand that I don't want the duplication involved in mailing FROM my Google gmail account TO my Google gmail account. So it follows, as night follows day and day night, that I must keep ANOTHER email account simply for the purpose of emailing to myself. Works for me! (see the end of this Morphy game for an explanation of Perfect Mate.)

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Three of the Strangest Schedules:

During my career in software development, I have encountered three particularly strange project schedules. In general, managers schedule work on a project to determine what it will cost and how long it will take to do it, and then they track actual progress to see whether the project is on schedule. This is actually an exercise in futility, as it is impossible to plan how long an interesting software project will take (Here's a proof of that by J. P. Lewis). But tracking actual progress does help us to know how we're doing, and sometimes even how good the developers are. When actual progress is much less than planned progress, we know we've got to do something.

1. I was particularly struck by one director who clearly kept no schedules at all. “Art,” I said, “Why don't you keep schedules for all your projects?”
If I knew how far behind I was,” Art said, “I wouldn't be able to sleep nights.”

2. Another director I worked for kept a beautiful hand-drawn schedule (he had once been a draftsman) locked in his desk, and it was rarely shown to someone in time of great need. (I glimpsed it once.) His staff knew this was ridiculous; you can have some confidence in a schedule if your whole team likes it, but if you're afraid to show the schedule to the people who are doing the work, it's probably imbecilic. I don't know what the schedule predicted, but we made painfully slow progress on this project.

3. Another group I worked with had only one copy of their project schedule. It was three feet high and forty feet long, and was printed once a month on a special printer after it was updated. Everyone was welcome to examine this schedule (it was pinned to three walls in a large room), but hardly anyone was able to grok it. This project eventually went up in flames and was canceled.

Monday, February 06, 2006

So I'm like, Why not say "I said?"

I listen in fascination to people in their teens and twenties talking like this:
So she's like, "Why don't we talk a long walk?"
And I'm like, "No!"

The noteworthy thing here is that "I'm like" seems to mean almost the same as "I said", and "I'm like" feels more complicated to say - to me anyway - so I figure that "I'm like" does not mean exactly the same as "I said."

But what's the difference? Here's my suspicion: "She said" is a good prefix for relating somebody's words. "She's like" is the prefix for explaining that somebody said something and all their body language echoed their words.

Comments, please? I'm, like, really curious about this.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

A War Story about: Cards

Searching this blog, I discovered that in many stories I refer to cards. This is a story about another sort of cards, and it's not my story, but I think it belongs on the web, here as well as anywhere. If you have trouble deciding what this story's about - that's because I'm protecting the innocent.

In the early years of the PC, when it was truly a weak, poor excuse for a computer, some people at a company I know made an exciting breakthrough. They were planning to make a product that would - and did - take the world by storm. But their marketing people decided, reasonably, that the real market for their product lay in the PC world, and required these developers to convert their exciting new hardware/software product to work on the PC.

My friends knew at once that they needed a real time operating system to run their software on the PC, capable of handling multiple simultaneous software processes and hardware interrupts. They inquired quietly, and found two companies on the West Coast who had, but were not productizing, such operating systems. And so they flew off to the coast to talk turkey with these companies. I won't mention their names, but you can guess who they were. They met both companies on the same day, morning and afternoon. Both meetings were held under tight non-disclosure agreements, and our friends wanted to give away as little s possible about their invention, to keep the price for the realtime OS down.

In the afternoon, during the second meeting, they liked what they were offered, but the price was rather high. At one point, one of our friends dropped his pen. When he reached over to pick it up, business cards from the morning meeting cascaded out of his pocket all over the floor, for all to see. He quietly picked them up. The price for the OS dropped precipitously, and they made a deal. No one knows whether the card drop was intentional.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

My Superbowl Prediction (2006):

Anticipating this game, I fear that it's going to go a certain way, and that fear is my prediction: I think that one of these two teams will have a defense that overwhelms the other's offense. This imbalance will become clear early in the game, and the team with the overwhelming defense will win by at least nine points, while its own offense grinds out yardage and points. But I have no idea which defense will be so impressive.

Update: My prediction was wrong - and therefore it was a good game to watch - for an interesting reason. Ben Roethlisberger's passing was not nearly as good as his recent games, where he seemed to be deadly accurate. Nonetheless, the Steeler's defense kept them in the game despite Seattle having one good field position after another. I think that if B.R. had been deadly accurate from the start, the game would have gone as I predicted. But perhaps he was "tight", and we can certainly credit the Seattle defense with giving him hardly anyone to throw to.

Friday, February 03, 2006

A Pessimist (Please let me remind you again):

A pessimist is someone who believes that each day will be better than the next.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Microsoft Vista: Committed to Security?

Microsoft wants everyone to know that security in their next OS, Vista, will be wonderful. We understand that every bit of Vista is checked for security holes, and that security teams are a routine part of all development at MSFT. Here's a story about shipping security patches for Vista in Beta. And Here's Microsoft's Jim Allchin telling us that "Safety and security is the overriding feature that most people will want to have Windows Vista for."

Is Microsoft REALLY hardening its code to make it all secure? I think that if they were really serious, they would post most of the source code for inspection at their web site. That would get them hundreds of fine, cantankerous inspectors. They don't have to post all their code, they can keep some of it secret and inspect it at home, but open inspection will correct a lot of the rest. And I'm not making this idea up.

In a lecture, Paul Graham tells of submitting an article to a magazine and then finding he was hoping it would be rejected so he could post it at his website. "I feel pretty confident of something," he said, "after it's been reviewed by 7,500 people."

Microsoft could have the same confidence if they tipped most of their beautiful new VISTA out into the daylight. They could even offer to pay $50 per security bug that anyone finds. Why don't they?

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Are you, or have you ever been, sick?

The New York Times ran an article, still available here, that almost begins like this:

"Researchers estimated that more than half of Americans would develop mental disorders in their lives, raising questions about where mental health ends and illness begins."

The article is quite interesting, but is the above a sensible question? Almost everyone will have a physical illness in their lives, but does that obscure our perception of good physical health?

The issue underlying the Times article, which I believe it never mentions, is: why is the diagnosis and treatment of non-physical illness so far behind the physical? We have nearly scientific methods of diagnosing many physical illnesses, and pretty clear ways of deciding when they are cured. We can test for bacteria, white blood cells and antibodies. Most illnesses are routinely handled by one type of treatment. (The Medpundit blog quotes Chekhov’s saying that "When many cures are offered for a disease, it means the disease is not curable." Most mental illnesses still have wide varieties of treatment.)
Diagnosis and treatment of mental illness might still be a hundred years behind the standard for physical illness. When is it going to catch up? How is it going to catch up?