Friday, March 31, 2006

One of the advantages of growing old:

George Burns said (in a Playboy interview):
"I was brought up to respect my elders and now I don't have to respect anybody."

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Black Squirrels at Princeton University:

Princeton University has both gray and (about 20%) black squirrels. There are some nearby areas with blacks also (Cranbury), but somehow the blacks keep to the Princeton area and have not expanded at large into central New Jersey. I've watched these rare squirrels for many years and have been fascinated by their persistence and lack of territorial expansion. At last, like any sensible person, I visited the web to see what I could find about them.

Here's a web page with some general information about black squirrels. A page discussing "Princeton Myths" has this to say about black squirrels: "Black squirrels may be ubiquitous at Princeton, but they are also perfectly natural. Black and gray squirrels are merely different color morphs of the same species, the eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). Populations of black squirrels appear naturally in other places in the Northeast, particularly in isolated populations such as those in city parks, and they have been around for a long time; in 1655 David De Vries included squirrels "black as pitch and gray" in his list of the wild mammals of New Amsterdam."

Do genetics determine the persistence of black squirels? Here's a discussion. A quote: "This mutant of the gray squirrel resides primarily in northern climates. Biologists surmise that the black fur more readily absorbs the rays of the sun, thereby keeping its owner warmer during cold winters. Selective genetics has given the black squirrel this survival advantage. One of the reasons they seem to be more abundant in cities is that their black coloration is more readily spotted in rural areas by predators, primarily birds of prey."
I'm guessing that the black coat's advantage/disadvantage may account for the squirrels' survival in Princeton without heir expanding to all adjacent regions. There is still some forest and farmland in central New Jersey, where their black coats would mark them for predators.

Not surprisingly, Princeton University has studied its black squirrels. Here's a page that goes into genetic details. That page includes Professor Henry Horn's calculations to show how, although black is the dominant gene, it does not spread to dominate the entire squirrel population.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Would you listen to a podcast (radio) station?

I recently saw a claim that in just two years, the number of podcasters has become greater than the number of radio stations in 100 years. To me this is a stupid comparison, because a podcaster may produce one or two shows a month, but most radio stations are on 18 hours a day and more. But the comparison invokes the idea of a podcast station. What would that be, and who would listen to it?

I'm imagining that within a few years, it will be easy to buy "radios" that can receive audio from any URL, rather than from many frequencies. Some companies will set up URLs to broadcast audio continuously. We'll set our "radios" to one of these URLs hour after hour, if we like their content. Deciding how to mix and match from existing podcasters, and make a schedule, will be the new hard marketing challenge for these "stations". But who will produce podcasts for such stations?

Podcasters enjoy freedoms that "stations" cannot grant. Podcasts vary in length, even from one provider, and could not easily be forced into a schedule. Podcasters manage their own ads, or have no ads and no convenient moments to splice ads in. Podcasters generally vary their subject matter a lot, so that it's hard to think of them as gears meshing into a station's machine of controlled variety. Podcasters are also pretty free with their speech. Would the FCC want to regulate podcast stations?

Despite all the disadvantages I've just listed - and I'll soon think of more - I believe podcast stations are inevitable. I'll probably prefer to listen to them than to other URL-based stations that continuously broadcast fiction in the public domain read by automated computer text-to-speech voices. Those URL-based "stations" are inevitable too.

Monday, March 27, 2006

The Sequel to King Kong:

It's a pity that the story about a sequel to King Kong has been debunked as an April Fool joke. If you're going to have sequels to King Kong - aside from the challenge of bringing him back - you've got to come up with clever names for the sequels.
The false news report suggested "Son of Kong". Not bad, I think, but if I were making just one sequel, I'd call it Kong King. To fleece movie viewers with a whole series, I have a few suggestions:
Prince Kong, Emperor Kong, Dictator Kong, President Kong. Maybe even Senator Kong.
Or there's: King Kung, King Kang, King Keng ...
Or perhaps: Fellowship of the Kong, Return of the Kong (It's the same director; I'm sure he can get the rights to these titles), and a prequel about the young ape called The Kobbit.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Evolution of Dollar Stores:

Dollar Stores fascinate me but I know very little about them. Here we go with a lot of speculation ...
I first discovered dollar stores in depressed sections of New Jersey, where most buildings looked old and in need of repair, many store closures were evident, and there was little evidence of rebuilding. (There were many such areas in NJ in the 1970's and early 1980's. Most of these places are bustling with development now.) The first dollar stores seemed to rise up just as the old "five and dime" stores were dying. Unlike the five and dimes, they truly offered products selling for a dollar or less.

Some of the merchandise in these first dollar stores was decrepit, but I could usually find something interesting or a bit of food to buy. But today there are dollar stores everywhere, and their merchandise has improved. I suspect that buying power is an important factor. The early stores proved the "Dollar Store Concept" and then other people figured out how to set up large chains, buy remaindered stock in large quantities and benefit from lower wholesale costs. There may even be factories in China devoted to manufacturing dollar store products.

I suspect there's still a stigma to patronizing these stores. I've never seen one full of customers, except for the dollar stores in big cities.

Friday, March 24, 2006

How far's the commute?

When I'm looking for software work, I claim that I can commute pretty far. In the old days I would field puzzling questions like "Can you commute to ten minutes south of Moorestown?" These days I've got a simple decider: I ask Google Maps about the trip from home to the company and see how long it thinks the trip will take.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Midlife Kicker!

After the rollout, a successful product settles into a good, gradually diminishing sales life, and the only interesting marketing decision is when to stop production. But some products experience a different fate: their decline is reversed when they are updated, made exciting and more relevant, and rereleased with a splash. Many new customers buy them, old customers clamor for the upgrades, and the product's life is extended some years. This type of upgrade is referred to as a “Midlife Kicker.” The special cost of re-engineering a product (to upgrade it and remarket it) can be well-covered by future sales.

As I explained in yesterday's blog entry, I'm having a Midlife Kicker experience with my Archos mp3 player. The Rockbox software I downloaded makes it feel like an exciting, better product. But in this strange Internet world, Archos did not improve my player. In fact they may have lost interest in it, stopped producing and selling it. The Archos firmware in my player is more recent than the “firmware upgrade” they offer online. And the Rockbox software probably extends the life of MY player at no charge (except for the donation I'm making), so that it will be a while before I consider buying from Archos again. Strange place, the Internet ...

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The web is full of riches:

The web is full of rich goodies, but they can be incredibly hard to find. Here's an example that has astounded me today. I listen to podcasts on a fairly old Archos mp3 recorder/player. Archos stopped upgrading their firmware long ago. Their user interface assumes that I will be playing short songs, perhaps 3 minutes in length. There is – therefore – no ability to “bookmark” the middle of a song, turn the player off, turn it on and continue in the middle of a track where I left off.

But I mostly use my Archos for podcasts that range up to two hours in length. In order to keep my place, I have to pause the player and leave it turned on, draining the battery. That sucks, so recently I've been looking for a new player, preferably around $100 (which I'd rather not spend) that can bookmark and resume podcasts. But today, BoingBoing has a short item about some open source software called Rockbox. You can load Rockbox onto many mp3 players and it replaces the usual user interface with a much better one, full of extra goodies and better controls, INCLUDING bookmarking. They support Archos, and their manual even has a picture of the models they support, which gave me the the guts to download it and try it.

Now I have bookmarking! This software has saved me at least $100, and I'll be making a contribution to Rockbox development as soon as I can figure out how to do it. And it never even occurred to me to search the web to see if a downloadable interface for my player existed.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006


I've worked in many different work environments, including one where I had to put on a hard hat to enter the computer room. I prefer "lab/research" dress, where one wears quite informal clothes suitable for dragging wires across the floor under benches. But it just occurred me that here in the year 2006, I wore a suit to work for the first time in the 21st Century. (Be nice if it's also the last time ...)

Monday, March 20, 2006

Here's the future of popular music!

I've been arguing that the enormous, repressive media companies are no longer needed, and that the future belongs to musicians who will encourage free swapping of their performances to build up a following so that they can make a decent living from live concerts. But the Artic Monkeys have done better than that. Apparently they wrote good songs, built up a following by encouraging free swapping of their music, developed their popularity at Myspace, and released an album through an Indie company called Domino Records. Their concerts are selling out, they may make a lot of money, and they did it without suing their fans to keep them from sharing their music.

There's a good story about them at Wired by Michael Calore. Here's a quote from the article:
Many of us on this side of the music business (the consumer side) have been saying that the old logic is a myth, and that trading songs via P2P actually encourages people to buy more music. They are exposed to more bands and a wider variety of music. They get a chance to get excited about new music in a much more direct and natural way. They aren't told about it by an advertisement or a video. They find it on their own or a friend tells them about it. They check it out, they like it, then they go to the store and buy the CD. And they probably buy more than just that one CD while they're there.
And here's another quote:
Another point proven by the Arctic Monkey's success is that the major labels are misguided about promotion and marketing. Pure word of mouth and an open trading policy actually work better than big-budget videos and full-page magazine spreads.
And here's just one more:
All it took was one band from this new subculture to hit it big — really big — in order to signal that a change is needed. The major labels are still scratching their heads wondering why the kids aren't buying records they way they used to. And meanwhile, the Arctic Monkeys are selling hundreds of thousands of records and enjoying the success they made for themselves.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

A pedestrian Collision:

This morning I collided with a fast-walking pedestrian. I was walking northwest along a wide path when a shadow overtook me on my left. I stepped to the right to avoid a collision and we bumped.
The other fellow's elongated shadow slanted across and forward to my left, but his body was passing me on the right.

I definitely blame the sun for this one.

Friday, March 17, 2006

I never remember a face ...

Like a rare few of you, I have a lot of trouble remembering both names and faces. Forgetting faces has meant many an embarrassment. I used to hate to say to anyone, "I can't remember your name," and I came up with devious strategems to avoid this awful admission. The advent of the polite phrase "I'm blocking your name" has been a great liberation for me.

Many years ago I started working at a small company. Week after week I ran into people I did not recognize whose names I could not "remember." I just barely managed to deal with all this anonymity. After a few months I discovered that the company was expanding rapidly (from about 40 to 100 in this period). I had in fact been meeting people I had never seen before, never been introduced to.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG! (Ohhh, sweet music!)

A gentleman named Bob Speer has written an elegant essay explaining why nobody listens to recent popular music anymore: it's too loud. I can bring a bit of historical perspective to this issue; here's the letter I wrote to him:

Bob Speer,
I enjoyed your column about loud music at: .

Perhaps you're not aware of this, but as a classical musician interested in old performing styles and old recordings, I can assure you that music has been getting distinctly louder since the early 1930's, and probably earlier than that. I believe that in recorded pop music, the 1970's saw a very important step in this process: It was - at that time - no longer possible to get absolutely louder, but it WAS possible to use many electronic sounds that hardly decayed at all. (Sounds that do not decay in volume sound much louder.)

This business of increasing volume may have been exacerbated by World War One. Many composers (such as Frank Bridge in England), heavily affected by this awful war, developed louder, angrier styles of music to express their feelings. The automobile and other machinery have of course made normal life much louder, and music naturally has increased in volume to keep up.

I was an early Gustav Mahler advocate in the late 1950's. At the time, most classical musicians said something like this: "I don't like Mahler! He's too loud! He bangs!" By the mid 1970's, life was so loud that no such criticism could be heard.

You seem to feel that music has finally gone too far in its loudness. I hope you are right, but many people have felt the same in (quieter) times past.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Changing from Atom to RSS feed:

I will soon change from an ATOM feed to an RSS feed.
Please email me if you wish to be notified when this happens.

A Simplified Fantasy Role-Playing Game:

Current Fantasy games place a strong emphasis on developing your character’s abilities. Unfortunately there are many distractions (fighting, puzzle-solving, socializing, mapping) but eventually, if lucky, you have the satisfaction of developing a complex, high-level character that can defeat the arch enemy and win the game.

I propose a new game that will eliminate the distractions. First, you create your character, a satisfyingly long-winded process involving many degrees of diverse abilities. Then the computer game tells you that you have been adventuring, you’ve gotten some random bonuses and penalties, and you have gained the right to “level up” and choose more abilities. You make your choices, and this process repeats. When you think you are ready, you tell the game you want to fight the archenemy. The game does quite a complex calculation, and tells you whether you’ve won or lost. Then you create another character … (I hope the game won’t be too addictive).

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Grab that Grab Bar!

When we remodeled our bathroom, I knew that at last our shower/tub area would have: grab bars. I put a lot of thought into where they should go. This mental effort went like this: Suppose I'm standing THERE, I lose my balance and start to fall; would I instinctively grab a grab bar and avert my fall? I asked myself this question for a lot of potential THEREs. Now we have two elegant grab bars, and I've learned what I should have realized from the first: A grab bar isn't something you reach for when you lose your balance; it's something you hold on to, to mantain your balance.

Monday, March 13, 2006

In which I undertake to correct a lifelong mistake:

All my life, I've endeavored to mark my place in a book and set it down, just after turning the page. When I continue, which might be minutes or months later, I turn to the bookmark and know exactly where to begin reading again. But what happens, I finally asked myself, if I don't clearly remember the current context? Because then I must turn back one page and take a quick glance to remind myself what's happening.

My new habit, that I assure you I will learn with some considerable pain, is to leave off reading and bookmark the book when I'm at the top of the RIGHTHAND page. That way, when I continue, the context will lie before me, plain to see on the left.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Anthony Myatt's Analog Hole:

Please read today's offering and be amazed, as we wander purposefully from deep philosophical questions of art to corporate law, Hollywood "spec scripts", and the Analog Hole.

The New York Times has a very entertaining article about Anthony Myatt, who supported himself for years forging paintings by famous masters. (The link to the Myatt story is a newfangled “New York Times Blogger's link"; please email me if you have any trouble with it, ever.) Now out of jail, for forgery of course, Myatt sells “genuine fakes” of old masters; for less money to be sure, but he's doing well enough that someone else is forging his genuine fakes. If you owned a real Myatt forgery, obviously you overpaid for it, but if it fools you, how important is it to know it's forged?
Stories like these tend to raise deep philosophical questions like “What is art?” “What's the value of art?”

While philosophy can't help us much here, the heavy hand of business can. One recent Myatt painting is a Magritte knockoff titled “Ceci N'est Pas Une Magritte". The business world regrets that some old masters like Michaelangelo have fallen through the cracks, but Magritte flourished in the twentieth century. Someone must own the Magritte trademark; someone must own the Magritte style; those somebodies should be suing Myatt right out of business, making him destroy his Magritte knockoffs. That's what our laws encourage big companies to do, to stifle imaginative innovation. And without the competing art works, there'll be no difficult philosophical questions to ponder.

Now if that solution appeals to you at all, allow me to introduce you to the “spec script”. Writers who want to get into the TV business are expected to write spec scripts to show off their skills. A spec script is a script for any current TV show. It's unlikely that the owners of the given show will buy it and produce it, but since the TV world is generally familiar with its shows, people can more quickly judge your Hollywood Writing ability by reading your spec scripts.
I know about these from the Sam & Jim website. These guys have sold a pilot for a TV show to ABC (that will apparently not be produced). The news of their sale has made them a somewhat hot item, and their agent has told them that they need to write a new spec script, which they are doing, for the show House. What fascinates me is that we have exactly the sort of trademark and copyright violation here that I was talking about above. If you or I put a House script of our own on our website and called it a parody, it's quite likely the lawyers of House would make us make it down. But if you're a budding writer in Hollywood, the same script is okay. Why is that?

To clear up this muddle, we must look at the proposed “analog hole” legislation currently before congress. “Analog hole” is a somewhat misleading phrase for a problem. As the recording industry knows, when people distribute pirated DIGITAL copies of music free, there is no degradation in sound quality, even to the nth copy. Many attempts are being made (D'you remember “DRM”?) to prevent digital copying. But even if every recording device sold to us in the future will prevent us from copying commercial digital recordings, it will still be possible to make an old fashioned analog recording – at some loss of quality – and then digitize THAT and distribute it. The Analog Hole legislation attempts to prevent that by requiring analog copying devices to have lots of additional logic that almost certainly won't work, to prevent analog copies of commercial items. But in order to create and produce music recordings and films, people routinely utilize analog copies all the time. So if the new law requires all machines to prevent analog copying of commercial material, it will also cripple the recording industry.

Never fear.

The recoding industry solved that problem, right in the proposed legislation. The law would allow “professionals” to bypass the copy protection. Only us amateurs would be excluded. Strangely, although there are probably fifty million people in the world capable of creating interesting films, most of them will never qualify as professionals, a status to be reserved mostly for the convenience of a few inside companies. Which brings us back to spec scripts: these are obviously okay for the people who write them; they are professionals, often Hollywood insiders, and the entertainment establishment is happy to give them an exception.

And all this clears Mr. Myatt up for me also. Why, he's a professional now, isn't he? So his art must deserve to have some insider-specified worth.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Annalee Newitz on battling Pornography:

Annalee Newitz says, in her column Your Brain on Porn, that she is flabbergasted by the focus of congressmen in a recent Senate hearing on pornography. She presents an interesting point of view:

"The thing that intrigued me about this hearing, aside from its inherent looniness, was how it completely ignored the way pornography is made. Instead, it focused entirely on how porn is consumed. ... Worrying about porn consumers is sort of like saying, "Who cares about all those soldiers dying over in Iraq - think of the people who are being harmed by watching them on TV!" If you really do believe dirty pictures are bad, shouldn't you try to stop them at the source?"

Thursday, March 09, 2006

British Bars Selling Sex Toys in Machines:

I love newspaper headlines that would be difficult for a computer to parse and comprehend. I failed to parse this one myself, because context is everything in this case! It's a news story about how sex toy vending machines in Britain were originally installed in restaurant bathrooms (for privacy), but a bar put one right out in the open and it's selling just fine, thank you. (The vending machines also have begun to show up in hairdressing salons, health clubs and retail stores; makes Britain sound a little too much like Japan, to me.) I'm not sure you'll be able to see the story at Newsvine, but here's a link to it.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Blogger suspects I'm spamming!

I just tried to post an entry in my other blog. You probably will not be able to see it right now, but it's: Blogger has auto-decided that my other blog may be a spam blog, so it has locked it, stopped my editing, required me to recognize some badly deformed letters and submit a request to get a human to review me, to determine that I'm not a spam-blog.

There's some irony here, as I've posted about the spam-blog problem before, written to Blogger about it, and - when browsing blogs to find new ones I like - I've flagged many spam blogs for Blogger to destroy, using the "objectionable" flag. I'm REALLY curious what I did to falsely trigger their spam detection logic, but it could be the mononmaniacal interest my other blog has in one and only one subject. (I'm against it, by the way.)

Anyway, killing spam blogs is a serious matter. So ... I'm not complaining.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

In Search of Podcasts: Steve Dupont, Obtuse Angle

Today I'm recommending another Podcaster named Steve Dupont. I'd rather call him a performance artist than a comedian. His material is very strange and original, invoking splendidly realistic if somewhat paranoid realities. His unusual delivery enables him to play many original tricks on his listeners, and to change subjects, dropping pregnant suggestions on the way to nowhere as he builds atmosphere. His website is, and I recommend podcast episode 49 (in which you, an agent of the government, break into Steve's house) as a good introduction. Dupont once said, "I like to think there are two kinds of people. Not two categories, but two subcategories of each category; to keep things simple." (If you think I must have wrenched that quote out of context, you're wrong. It had no context.)

Monday, March 06, 2006

Parkinson: Other laws - the perfect building for a company.

You're probably familiar with Parkinson's Law: "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion."
Northcote Parkinson, an astute observer of human nature (and something of a reactionary) formulated many other laws as well, and some of these deserve better rememberance. My favorite is this one (I'm paraphrasing):
When a company or other organization is finally able to plan and build the perfect building for itself, the building best suited to its needs, that organization is in the throes of petrification and death.
Parkinson observed that a vital organzation is always working in makeshift quarters, cramped spaces, making do, and splitting up into multiple sites to handle its overflow of employees. The dying organization has time to plan, and perhaps a static target to plan for. Beware of that perfect building. (I've worked for three companies that followed this law faithfully; the third time, it was easy to see that the company was obeying this Parkinson law.)

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Life on a one-way street:

We used to live on a short one-way street. The exciting part about life on a one-way street is: watching people drive the wrong way. You can't help noticing that when people (and even dogs) cross a one-way street, they look, at most, one way before stepping onto the - shall we say - playing field. The people who drive the wrong way fall into two neat categories:

  1. The totally clueless.
  2. The lazy, knowing lawbreakers.

The second category really worried me. They would drive fast to get off the street and back into a legal position as fastaspossible. All the wrong-way drivers I saw were lucky; they never had a crash, never got ticketed.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Gustav Holst's laPnets:

On my radio show I occasionally program The Planets, by Gustav Holst (written in about 1916). Even if you're not into classical music, chances are you've enjoyed Mars and Jupiter. Many classical radio stations avoid long compositions (the piece is about fifty minutes long); they will play an occasional planet instead. Our station likes to program complete compositions, but about a year ago I got the idea of rearranging the order of the planets. I think Holst's order is best, but many other sequences of planets work very well. I've tried three different orders so far, and - strangely - none of our listeners has complained.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Clinical Trials of Psychotherapy:

The New York Times recently discussed psychotherapy, snd they are now fielding letters about it. One writer, Ed Erwin, a professor at the University of Miami, wrote today to say that "The cure for this epistemolgical sickness is to insist on the use of randomized clinical trials before a therapy is judged to be effective. There is no other way."
Now the Virtual Tourist once observed that it is extremely difficult to design a psychology experiment to test only what you really want to test, but bear with me here. I've got a few modest ideas.

First let's consider Blind Trials: People who sign up for psychotherapy will not know whether they are going to see a real therapist, or someone who is specially trained - for this experiment - to appear to be a therapist while actually doing nothing. (Now don't waste my time asking me how to tell the difference, we're trying to be serious here!) Then we can try to determine the relative efficacy of the real and fake therapists in actually helping and curing people. But this, as I'm sure you know, is inadequate. We need Double Blind Trials.

Here's how the double blind trial works. Certain people enter an education program to become psycotherapists, but on a random basis, some are assigned to a program that, while appearing to teach psychotherapy, actually teaches them to do nothing at all. (I said Don't waste my time with your stupid question ...) Then we assign patients randomly to real or placebo therapists, and compare the results.

Now I'm sure you agree there's a stupendous cost in running this experiment, but if we can just end the Iraqi war a few days early, that ought to cover the cost. We have to bear the immense expense of training the placebo therapists, and then, if it turns out that psychotherapy really works, recompensing them for the lost years of their lives and training them again, properly this time.

But there is always that silver lining! Suppose it turns out that placebo therapy is just about as good as the real thing. Then the placebo therapists can hang out their singles, charge a little less perhaps, and go off happily curing people.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006


Have you ever found yourself staring at an email and trying to decide whether it's appropriate NOT to reply? These decisions can take awhile. Does he expect an answer? Will he be offended if I don't answer? If I DO answer, will he feel obliged to answer again?

I have no easy solution to this problem for myself, but I try to solve it for others. It's a pity that "NNTRTTI" isn't a well-known acronym. Instead I spell it out, wherever I can: "No need to respond to this item."