Sunday, April 30, 2006

Digital Watch with Two Time Displays:

Do you make a lot of phone calls to New Zealand? If so, you might really appreciate a digital watch with separate displays for two different time zones. But if you can add and subtract, you might find that second time zone display a liability.
My watch has displays for: time, data base, alarms, stop watch, countdown timer, and a second time zone. I use the first five displays a lot. But I think the real point of the second time display is to wreak havoc. It takes a lot of button presses to get to it, and sooner or later it will simply show a DIfferent TIme THat IS WRong, so it would be best if I could never see it; but that second time display insists on being visible sometimes, and it usually IS wrong, and it confuses me.

Friday, April 28, 2006

An interesting writer on the web: Alicia Anne Rhiannon Coppin.

While wandering about the Internet, I discovered a news writer (and engineer) I might never have heard of, named Alicia Anne Rhiannon Coppin. I was searching for instances of a misued phrase, "say la vie", which I had decided not to write about. Coppin was writing about it, here. And here are a few more of her articles: Bicycle Polo, free for all public biffies, Sleep Paralysis, Ambient HD video displays. And then there's her crazy collection of quotes, full of surprises for you if you've already read many pages of quotations.
(Kotorynski's Paradox:"You cannnot prove anything by example. You cannot prove anything by example. Let me repeat myself a third time: nothing can be proven by example. Let me give you an example..."
And here's another one: Mantis H.M. Cheng explains why he wants work done in pairs: "Some of you have asked me, 'Why do I need a partner? I'm so smart.' The reason is, your partner is an idiot!")

UPDATE: Rhiannon points out that the quotes page she links to belongs to: Alex MacGillivray (spelling approximate).

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Management By Objectives (MBO) in real life:

I was a mid-level manager at a hardware/software company that suddenly embraced a technique called “Management By Objectives.” The President, VPs and directors received a presentation on it, they “got it”, and spent some serious cash and resources to send all us middle managers to a course on it. (Upper management did not feel they had time to take the course, but thought they might take it later.)

MBO is credited to Peter Drucker, who discussed it in his book The practice of management in 1954. The main tactic is that a manager works with each employee to define their work objectives for a year. The employee is involved in defining these, and they are described clearly in writing. People review these objectives during the year and update them if they get out of date. At year-end, the employee's work is reviewed against the objectives. People who fulfill or exceed their objectives can hope for raises, bonuses and promotions. Perhaps more important, this focus on objectives keeps everyone focused on real goals, if they know what the goals actually are.

We came back from the short course prepared to try out MBO, although, knowing our own company, we had misgivings about how it might work out. I had a conversation with my director:
“Do you understand the MBO course?” he asked.
“I think so.”
“Are you ready to try it?”
“Okay, what are your objectives for this year?”
“I'd like my objectives to fulfill a lot of YOUR objectives, not just be work I'd like to do. What are your objectives?
I had puzzled him, and he looked at me blankly. Then: “I don't know what the company wants to do this year. I'll get back to you.”

My director talked to his other direct reports, and they all gave him essentially the same answer. It wasn't that we had made a conspiracy; rather, we had learned in the MBO course the importance of making these objectives “top down” so that they were relevant.

That was pretty much it for MBO in our company. I was never asked to work to objectives. In the 1990's Peter Drucker nailed this particular situation very well. See the link just above for his neat quote.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

SHouting a little in CAps:

As we all know, it is impolite to EMAIL, CHAT OR COMMENT IN CAPITAL LETTERS for emphasis. People tend to equate even a capitalized word or two with shouting. We're supposed to use bolding, or to write very, very skilfully instead.

I've accidentally found an alternative: Emphasis by capitalizing the FIrst TWo LEtters of the occcasional WOrd! There, I feel BEtter already.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

"Reasoning" in English:

A recent letter to the NYT reminded me of my total frustration with attempts to win a logical argument in English (or any other human language for that matter). There is a wonderful field of math, the Logical Calculus, that deals with true and false statements and the conjunctions (if, and, or ...) that can bind them together. Logical calculus assumes you know the truth of simple statements. It lets you figure out if you have a well formed complex statement and, if so, whether it is true. You can track a whole logical argument that way, deciding whether the conclusion of the whole argument is true.

But human language is ambiguous. Words have multiple meanings, mean different things to different people. Sometimes "and" means "or". There are tons of evidence to quote from in the "real world" that often are in conflict. And we've all had the experience of reading beautifully framed arguments that come, reasonably, to opposing conclusions. The essence is - you've got to remember that no matter how convincing an argument sounds, it's not logical and it may not be true.

But we've all been trained to make, and to respect, good written rhetoric. So we've got to keep pinching ourselves to remember to DISrespect it. Bonnie R. Nelson and Robert S. Nelson (of Brooklyn) caught the New York Times in one of these logical conflicts. Their letter quotes from two editorials, but all you need is the letter, which I've quoted here extensively (I hope they and the NYT don't mind):
In "Blood and Oil" (editorial, April 16) you say "It is time for Nigeria's government to begin taking into account the plight of the people who live around the oil wells that have sustained the country for so long."


In "Hugo Chavez and His Helpers" (editorial, Dec. 10) you excoriated president Hugo Chavez ... for using "high world oil prices to increase funds for poplualr social programs for the poor, making him electorally unassailable." The letter writers want to know why the NYT supported opposite views in what were doubtless reasonable-seeming arguments.
(I'm sure that any polished writer can argue convincingly that the statements were not "opposite" at all when placed in context. Or that they were. Etc., Etc. Etc. ...)

Monday, April 24, 2006

If you like to cook Chinese or far east Asian food, here’s a tip (2)

Use rhubarb. Cooked long, it thickens your sauce and makes it tart. Cooked briefly, it’s a tangy stir fry ingredient. Eat the root but not the poisonous leaves!

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Know your own PLU codes!

In the early 1980's, scientists expected to discover how to make genetic changes to fruits and vegetables to cause them to grow their own identifying bar codes on every item. At the time I think people did not realize how convenient it would be for low-wage laborers and robots to stick number codes on most items instead. You've seen the universal four-digit PLU codes that appear on most fruits and veggies. Here's an alphabetical listing. There are about a hundred entries for kinds of apples! It fascinates me that four digits suffices for a world-wide coding of vegetables and fruit.

So what happens when you bring one of the oddball items to the cashier for checkout?
(She holds your plastic bag up disdainfully.) "What's this?"
"How do you spell that?"
"K u m q u a t."
(A pause while they riffle through their list.) "I don't think it's spelled that way here ..."
And so on.

So I recommend keeping your own list, for the unlabeled and unusual sorts of food you will bring to the cashier. You want to be able to say: "Kumquats, code 4303!" (Don't you?)
Here's my own "hot PLU" list:

  • 4235 plaintain
  • 4303 kumquat
  • 4309 lichee
  • 4598 daikon
  • 4662 shallot
  • 4801 tomatillo
  • 4802 dried tomato

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Two New Psychological Illnesses:

I fearlessly predict the advent of a new psychological problem. It will show up within twenty years, I think, and you'll soon understand why it has never been seen before. The problem is that a few people will get quite upset, perhaps unable to function at all, when they can be fairly certain there is no one they know within, say, twenty miles of them. In the converse illness, people will be unable to function when, say 2,000 or more of their friends and acquaintancecs are within a few hundred feet.

In order to facilitate these illnesses, we need a few technological advances that are just now on the horizon. With the ability to locate people accurately, check them against databases of friend-relationships, and download statistics about who's nearby to PDAs, it will become possible to warn people when their dread condition occurs. And don't think they won't want to know about it!

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


I'm going to introduce you to the mysterious force of nature that I call Windowsuck. You may be aware of it already, or perhaps - as I was - only vaguely aware until now. I do not believe that Windowsuck is one of the primary forces of nature. I believe it is a simple corollary of something else, Murphy's Law perhaps.

You can easily test this force yourself if you live in a home with windows and window sills. I think sills are a priceless space for storage, but if you disagree with me, then please prepare for your experiment by closing a window and loading up a typical sill, perhaps with a coaster for a glass, some pill boxes, a pack of unpaid bills, a notepad and a stack of rubberbands. NOTE CAREFULLY that the sill is full of stuff that do not share physical space with the window itself! That is, by peering down you can verify that there is a little open space between the contents of the sill and the window. Now open the window and go elsewhere. Make sure no human or pet approaches the window for several hours.

when you return to the window, try to close it. You can't! Invariably, part of the stuff on the sill has drifted towards the window, and when you press the window down it will crunch on something. Windowsuck has worked its magic! (If you believe the prevailing wind direction is to blame, you can repeat the experiment on the other side of your home; you'll get the same results.)

I suggested above that I was only vaguely aware of this force, and I was always frustrated at having to rearraange a sill to close a window. But now that I know what's going on, I'll be more tolerant of this nuiscance. I think.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Agent. Operator! RECEPTIONIST!!

I was complaining to the Virtual Tourist about my attempts to reach a human being quickly when confronted with a corporate automated telephone answering (IVR) system. I'm not just being impatient, I have special needs. Recently I wanted to report a lost credit card I found on the sidewalk. The customer service number on the card asked me for MY credit card number; MY social security number; info I'm darned if I'll give out just because I found someone else's card. As I pressed zero I also said "Agent. Operator! RECEPTIONIST!!" because a voice recognition system is usually set up to respond to some word, but you've got to guess which one.

"There's a whole web site devoted to this," responded the Virtual Tourist. And so there is. A website intended to make it easier for us to reach a human, and to rate customer service as well. They have lots of good tips and specific info. Try them before you next call a faceless bureaucracy.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

How good am I at developing software?

I'm sure many of you have noticed that I've made a living developing software. Naturally you're wondering if I'm any good at it. So it is with great pride, and not a trace of modesty, that I can inform you of the following:

I am: Mr. Software.

I know this because I once received a mass-mailed adverstisement, correctly addressed to "Mr. Tobias D. Software" at my home. I can't tell you what a pleasure it is to wear this sobriquet.

NOTE: Entry Corrected. It's a good thing my wife has an excellent memory.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

You can plan ahead ...

You can plan ahead for anything; except for what will actually happen.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

I want Big Brother to choose my TV Ads:

I would LIKE my TV system to figure out what shows I watch, figure out what ads might interest me, and then show me those ads. I worked for a while with a company that is implementing such a system. (People tend to worry that "Big Brother is watching You" in order to do ad matching, but the company I worked with arranged their software to keep big brother out of it.) It's a waste of my time to show me ads of interest to people who are much younger, or of a much different gender. But the mindless TV channels I watch now show me the wrong kinds of ads in the wrong kind of place.
When I watch TV, I see ads on the bottom of the screen for pay channels I have not subscribed to. I simply can't see their shows, AND I can't Tivo-skip over the ads because they occupy the bottom HALF of the screen while my TV show-of-interest proceeds. Big Brother, where are you when I need you?

Apologies for the short hiatus in blogging. I'll be back next Sunday.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Idiots, podcasts and white noise:

I've listened to radio for many years, and over time I became quite curious about my own listening preferences. I decided that what I desired from Radio was a certain degree of randomness, of surprise. I do know that I can't stand listening to a news station that begins to repeat the stories I've already heard, and I clearly prefer the rather mindless - but unpredictable from moment to moment - narration of sports announcers to the more intellectul fare of Public Radio.

Listening to podcasts has given me a new opportunity to test my desire for randomness, and it appears that I can be entertained by audio that approaches white noise. I enjoy Three Idiots and a Podcast, for example. Here we have three teenage boys who turn their microphone on and then just hang out, unwrap candy next to the mic or make weird noises. Not bad!

Then there's Two Idiots and a Podcast Mary and Karla, two young women who make a lot of noise and often convey no information at all. (I suspect I'd learn a lot more if I watched the video that goes with the audio, but I opt for the straight audio, very confusing when they are unwrapping gift packages, say.) Their Episode 14 is particularly hilarious. They had been reviewed by another podcast called Nobody Likes Onions, which didn't like Mary and Karla but resorted to the worst sort of ad hominewomen attacks, repeatedly calling them Fat Cows (check out the pics at their web site and you may disagree). M&K play back excerpts of the NLOnions review of their show with relish. At one point one of them more or less says, "Look, we're a Talk Show! We Talk!" But I disagree. I think someone who understands no English would greatly enjoy the wonderful rhythms, pitches and patters that spin off their voices; they are musicians first, speakers second.

Even better for me is One Idiot and a Podcast Rambling Retard Rampage. This podcast is done almost entirely by one 14 year old boy, "El Nacho", the child prodigy of podcasting. He tosses off remarkable comedic ideas, and charges ahead fearlessly fullsteam through all his whimsies. El Nacho's fascination with language produces all manner of word plays, rhythmic speech with bits of toothsome Spanish, French and Hebrew. And if you find his material too gentle and cerebral, preferring blood and guts, you can switch to his other podcast, "Mead and Ale" which he does with his sister Yayacolt. (If that title makes no sense to you, I think it's a terrible word play; try "Me d'Nail.") The first episode is about as gruesome as light audio can get, and other "Mead and Ale" episodes are too white noisy for me. But I DO seem to enjoy his rather random comedy.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Collecting Elephants:

Once we spent a week's vacation in the Virgin Islands. We shared several discussions with a couple who were about our age and rather well off. I was fascinated to discover that he had become a collector of elephant figurines. "That must be really interesting!" I volunteered. "No," he said ruefully, "Pretty soon you've collected your four basic types of elephant." (Sorry, I never found out what the four types were.)

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Your Best Watch is your Cellphone. So?

My very nice digital watch needs a new wristband so I'm not carrying it. Instead, when I really need the time, I carefully pull my cellphone out of its beltcase, open it up and scrutinize its screen. I know that of all the objects I carry around (or see on a wall), none is likely to be as time-accurate as my cellphone. Although it IS a bit of a nuiscance to read.
But today as I pulled out my cellphone to check the time, I suddenly felt allied to stuffy rich middle-aged men of the nineteenth century, who consulted the time by reaching down into the special watch pocket of their suit and withdrawing their fancy windup watches. The watch was worn close to the body so that the oil keeping it lubricated would be warm and flowing; and those watch-checkers had to make a physical motion similar to mine to check my phone. The more things change ...

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Tom Delay is Quitting Race and House!

The New York Times reports (April 4, 2006) that Tom Delay is Quitting Race and House. Now I know this is a political issue, so some of you will disagre with me but:

I will be very happy when Tom Delay is no longer in Congress, nor a white man.

(My link above to the NYT story is a special "for bloggers" NYT link and should function for a long time. Please mail me if it fails to work for you.)

Monday, April 03, 2006

A real-life Mashup:

I listen to podcasts a lot while walking. I'm often taking the same walk for the thousandth time, but it seems faster and more enjoyable if I have something to listen to. I'm afraid I tend to tune out my surroundings when the podcasts get really interesting. But today I had a different experience. I was walking past a row of trees in spring bud, leaf and bloom when I heard the lovely intro music to Claybourne. I experienced the music and the spring beauty together, and each enhanced the other. It was a bit like being in a movie, Elvira Madigan perhaps, along with its soundtrack.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

In defense of Richard Stallman on "Intellectual Property"

Richard Stallman gave the keynote speech at the Turin, Italy, meeting on March 18 about the drafting of GPLv3. He started, startlingly, by criticizing the term "Intellectual Property". You can read the whole speech at Groklaw, but here's the opening salvo:
There is a term that some people use, which causes terrible confusion and should never be used, and that is the term "intellectual property". Now, I heard someone mention that term. I don't think he was explaining why that term should not be used.

It is devastatingly harmful to use the term "intellectual property" because that term implies the existence of something which does not exist.

Copyright law exists. Patent law exists. They have almost nothing in common in terms of the requirements that they put on the public. Trademark law also exists. It has nothing in common with copyright law or patent law about what it requires of the public. So, the idea that there is some general thing which these are instances of already gets people so confused that they cannot understand these issues. There is no such thing. These are three separate unrelated issues, and any attempt to generalise about them guarantees confusion. Everyone who uses the term "intellectual property" is either confused himself or trying to confuse you.

I've signed many consulting contracts in my time, and all of them included clauses intended to protect IP. Inevitably they did not define it, nor explain how it would be defined. IP in general seems to be something intangible that companies want to protect.

My Intellectual Property Lawyer (yes, they exist) taught me to insist always on a clear definition of what my clients want to protect. My favorite way does not attempt at all to define what IP is: I "agree that my customer can inform me in writing that some information is proprietary, and I will then protect it as specified in the contract."

Stallman argues clearly that there is no such clear THING as IP. It's in the eyes of the beholder. He would argue similarly I think, against using terms like "intellectual beauty" or "inherent beauty" or "beauty-value property", since these are obviously not abstractly definable. Perhaps what gives "Intellectual Property" weight in the current world is the fact that we keep using it.
- Precision Blogger