Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Floss the flosser!

Do you get as annoyed as I do when your dental floss dispenser can no longer cut its chord because its little sharp metal cutting hook is jammed up with frayed string? I finally figured out why that bothers me so much. The cutting hook no longer works because: it needs to be flossed! It has - just like my teeth - picked up interstitial bits of flotsam.

If someone would make and sell me a flosser to floss my floss dispenser, I'm sure that product would eventually need to be flossed as well. If there's one thing I hate worse than slippery slopes, it's RECURSIVE slippery slopes ... RECURSIVE slippery slopes ... ...

Monday, May 29, 2006

A Really Bad Email Address:

If you have an email address that people always misspell, or an email address that collects loads of spam, Here's what you should call it: an "emal address."

Sunday, May 28, 2006

I wonder how Carla's doing ...

On my walks a few months ago, I often noticed an unusual SUV parked at the curb near our house. I wondered how it could stay there so long at a time (in our neighborhood you have to ask the police, every day, for permission to park overnight). And if I were to explain to you what was unusual about the SUV, you would know why I wondered how the car's owner could stay away from the town he belonged in, about 20 miles away, so much and so often.
There's a smart elder woman in our neighborhood, an artist and writer, who's usually clued in about what's happening on our block. One morning she came out of her house as I was looking at the SUV. I called to her, “Say, do you know the significance of that SUV parked there?”
She gave me a conspiratorial “Shh,” index finger to mouth, and I crossed the street to her.
She continued in her normal voice, “The SUV being there means that Carla's getting laid!”
I must have stared at her mouth agape. She continued, “I live next to Carla and our houses are very close together. Those two have hot tempers, I hear them arguing all the time. But it seems there's also a lot of great sex.”
I haven't seen the SUV for months. But maybe the guy's using some other vehicle these days.

Friday, May 26, 2006

No Soap, Radio!

I suspect you're familiar with the old anti-joke, No Soap, Radio. I met a pragmatic variation of this joke in a men's room recently. This variation owes a lot to the ingenuity of Manufacturing Engineers, who have introduced countless innventions aimed at lowering the price of manufacturing or maintenance, a few tenths of a cent at time. (I shall have a little more to say about that topic in the near future.)

The case in point is a soap dispenser. First, maintenance cost is reduced by placing the soap in a plastic bag that's easy to slip into the dispenser when it is empty. Second, the cost of applying enough pressure to the soap to dispense it devolves entirely on the customer. Initially the pressure of the full bag is enough to make the soap flow smoothly when the dispense button is depressed. But after awhile the soap stops flowing and more pressure is needed. That's why the following words are emblazoned on the dispenser:

No Soap, Slide Bar.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

A Flick of Mother Nature's Eyelashes:

My regular morning walk requires me now to skirt around a humbling sight: the enormous branch of an elm tree, almost a foot in diameter and over forty feet long, has crashed to the ground where I normally cross a parking lot. In falling, that branch snapped off a branch of an adjacent elm tree, eight inches in diameter and a bit smaller. The leaves and branch material fill part of the lot, towering above and around me.
A little inspection shows that the larger branch really did snap off the smaller one, which it must have hit with considerable force. The larger branch may have fallen with no warning when it grew to be just a bit too heavy, for it snapped off at its joint with the trunk. One can see that this joint was rotten and hollow, no longer able to support the branch. There was a squirrel's nest in the hollow, and the squirrel is still trying to live in it, although the nest – ten feet above ground – is now horizontal, uncovered, and exposed to the view of all winged predators.
It appears that no person or car was underneath when the branches suddenly fell. That's nice. People will rarely be in the wrong place when a branch falls, but here's a very brief poem on the subject of ash trees, which are relatively likely to drop the random branch:
Ash hateth
Man and waiteth.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Grisly cigarattes ...

While listening to a podcast about the grisly methods other countries use on cigarette packs to discourage smoking, I remembered my own foray into discouraging smokers from smoking. As you will see, my efforts were entirely accidental.

One of my regular seminars required a live music performance, and I brought my bassoon, along with a little pitcher of water to soak my bassoon reed. After we played our music, I dumped the pitcher of water into the only ashtray in the room, as I packed the pitcher away with the disassembled bassoon. The smokers in the seminar used this ashtray, and the water quickly turned a revolting shade of brown. People clearly thought the ashtray had become quite disgusting but, well, they continued to smoke.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006


I believe that pratfalls, a mainstay of physical comedy, are mostly discovered, not invented. This morning, for example, I picked up my audio player and started to walk away with it. As I did so a thought flashed through my mind: Wasn't my player plugged in to the a/c outlet? Even as I digested this thought I felt a mighty resistance from the player's refusal to take another step in my direction...

Let's just say that you don't have to play catch with round balls, and I'm glad my player still works. Oh, and juggling was probably discovered, not invented..

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Culture Clash and “Mashup” at the Princeton-Microsoft IP Conference:

I attended the wonderful IP (Intellectual Property) Conference at Princeton on May 18-19, 2006. I was expecting a violent culture clash and I experienced one, but not the clash I expected.

For me, Intellectual Property issues are determining the future of the arts, journalism, literature and software in the United States. We find the enormous companies accustomed to making enormous profits opposed to the grass roots movements in all these fields. As Larry Lessig explains, copyright law tends to make ALLL copying in digital media look like it's against the law, and the big corporations (and the many congresspeople who agree with them) are consistently litigating against today's creators who have found new methods of digital expression.

But that wasn't the clash we got. At the keynote session on Thursday evening, the first speaker discussed how, in the pharmaceutical arena, there is a similar tension between the few companies that want to make extraordinary profits, and the researchers who are finding new creative ways to research the drugs of tomorrow. In BioMedicine, there's constant negotiation between these two camps to make sure the big companies do not handcuff the researchers by the ways they choose to protect their IP ownerships. (Universities are caught in the middle, as they strive to earn big rewards from the big discoveries, acting like the big corporations, but also facilitate their own researchers, acting like their own inventors.)

The second speaker – Lawrence Lessig – apologized that his speech would be entirely unrelated, and he launched into a fine son et lumiere presentation about the conflict between the big corps and the new creators in the arts. (The whole conference went on like that, with scientists and artistic people presenting their separate experiences and viewpoints, rarely intersecting.)

During the Thursday night Q&A session I suggested doing a “mashup” of these two fields to see what their contrast could tell us. I think it's obvious that in Mo Bio, the big money makers understand that the researchers are producing tomorrows “big hits.” That gives the researchers financial clout, so that negotiations for their rights proceed with respect. In the arts, the RIAA and movie companies have no respect at all for the young artists who are creating mashups of their music and videos, so there is no respectful negotiation, but only heavy-handed DRM software and legislation. Matters might eventually improve when today's artists move into the managerial ranks of the large arts companies, or otherwise (through donations) achieve their own financial clout. Where might such financial clout come from?
Ed Felton is blogging about the IP conferernce, starting in the May 19, 2006 entry of Freedom to Tinker.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Spread the Credit Around:

When a university research team files a patent, they can be very generous about crediting authorship to everyone who works on it. I learned today that this kindness can have a good, practical basis. I was told of a research group whose work depended on a machine that one faculty member had invented (and patented for himself alone). That faculty member moved on from university A to university B, but the research at A continued, until B sued them to stop it.
“Hey this is our research,” claimed A.
“But you don't have an author for the key machine,” said B. “We have the inventor now!”
“If there had been lots of inventors,” said the person telling me the story, “some of them would still have been at A.”

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Climate Control Door:

In the spring, the door to our attic becomes a tricky climate control. During the winter, closing the door prevents heat from escaping up and out through our rather uninsulated roof. During the summer, keeping the door open allows unwanted warm air to collect in the attic (unless we're using the attic and want it to be cold). In spring, as the weather shifts among the fifties, sixties and seventies (F), the ideal position for the attic door changes often. When to open or close it becomes a tough judgment call. (And no, I don't want a temperature-sensing device to auto-control it. Too expensive.)

Wind Turbines are Photogenic ...

Wind Turbines are photogenic, especially when photographed like this. I'm sure you're reading, as I am, about all the good these turbines can do to make us more energy self-sufficient, and about all the strange “nimby” cases where communities do not want bunches of windmills in their towns.

I've seen a real wind turbine farm (in Palm Springs) and I know the truth now. These farms are unbelievably ugly, an eyesore in the environment, possibly a little less ugly than your local coal stripmine. After seeing the real thing, I cannot cease marveling at how well their pictures turn out. The turbines are enormous and they dwarf the landscape they are planted in. In large numbers they shatter the landscape view, and some of them will be broken or fallen, making jagged and unsettling, what might otherwise look like a neat and orderly facility.

They really work though. Where will people put them?

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

I would Never do this to you, never. I promise!

I was listening to a podcast on my earphones but I needed to make a cellphone call. I should have taken the earphones off, but I was lazy. I just slipped off the right earphone, put the cellphone that ear and called.

I was amazed at how easy it was to follow both the phone conversation and the podcast. My brain kept both ears and their sounds quite clear and separate. It was an exhilarating experience, but I was being unfaithful to the person on my phone call, and I knew it. Never again. I hope ...

Monday, May 15, 2006

Get a new game, download the corrections ...

When I was young, when we got a new game, we interpreted the rules as best we could, and we played it. Today, when you get a new game, the first thing you do is to download the corrections. If it's a computer game, there's bound to be a manufacturer's patch online to fix dreaded bugs. If it's a board game, apparently there will be official rules with thoughtful explanations online, interpretations, and maybe even rule changes.
I recently received a present, the fascinating board game Carcassonne, and soon learned that there has been much tinkering with the rules since my version of the game was published. What may have driven this process is how easy it is for web citizens and forums to provide feedback to the game's designers about what isn't working.
Anyway, when someone says to me, “Oh, you have Carcassonne, would you like to play a game?” My response will be, “Sure; which rule set?”

Friday, May 12, 2006

Programming for the two big I's (8): In the Zone:

(I'm continuing a story; for the previous installment, look back to my May 7, 2006 entry below.) We developed these program libraries to enable customers to play audio/video and display slideshows on the Two Big I's fancy chips, finishing only a little more behind the final "wing and a prayer" schedule. The last part of the project took somewhat more than six months. It was a team effort, with five other programmers contributing, and it totally consumed my thoughts. After a few weeks coming up to speed, I was constantly thinking about what to do next, and making excellent progress with only a few sideslips. My concentration was as deep as it has ever been. But I'm not proud about that.

Software comes and goes. But what about family? My wife and kids assured me that during those months I was "not there" even when I was home. They were living with a zombie. This is not the best tradeoff I ever made in my life.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

A Car Without a Radio is like a ...

I was commuting and needed to buy a car. My great internal debate was whether to buy the radio separately after getting the car. There would be a gap of a few radioless weeks before I had time to make a good choice and get it installed, but I KNEW I could get a much better radio that way.
In the end, I settled for the auto manufacturer's radio, because I could not imagine commuting even one day without some radio voices talking to me and keeping me alert. I got a barely satisfactory radio, and frankly wished I'd held out to buy a better one later, but at least I was happy solving the commute problem.

But Now ...

The next time, if ever, that we have to buy a commuter car for me, I will buy the radio later. Those interim weeks won't be a problem! I'll load up on podcasts and listen to them instead. Hmmm. Or maybe I should just get the cheapest auto manufacturer's radio to listen to traffic reports, and otherwise rely on podcasts. Decisions, decisions ...

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

“This is Detroit. Cars get stolen." An aftermath:

“This is Detroit. Cars get stolen." Aftermath:
If you're in an automobile accident, you're advised to start driving again as soon as possible, to counteract the effects of mental trauma before it sinks in. (I was once hit by a drunk driver while making a left turn, and our car was badly damaged. Parts were unavailable due to a French dock strike, and I did not drive again for 90 days. When I did start again, I could not make a natural left turn for weeks; I could always feel an unseen car coming up on my left, and I made as wide-angled a turn as possible, as if unable to commit to going truly LEFT.) I think the same applies to having your car stolen at valet parking. (See my May 8, 2006 entry, just below.) You should use a valet again as soon as possible.

In fact my next encounter with valet parking was at a restaurant, fourteen months later. The valet lot was right next to the restaurant, and I was assured that it was hopeless to try to park on the street. I froze; I thought furiously, trying to remember everything I must do right to give my car to the valet. I placed my key in the ignition, got out and securely locked the car. And I did not have a second key.

Lunch (with friends) was ruined for me by the progress bulletins I received. Every ten minutes someone would come to our table to inform me that they hadn't unlocked my car yet, but they were still working on it. I knew they would not give up; my car was blocking entrance/egress to the valet lot! It took them fifty minutes to get it open.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

What would you buy on a 100 Gigabyte DVD?

We're just starting to see the attack of the Larger DVD drives, intended to hold High Definition (HD) movies. But storage media are getting bigger and denser. What could anyone sell to fit on a 100, 500 or larger GB drive? If this question worries you - which I greatly doubt - thank goodness I have the answer.

Please imagine a movie "released" to 500GB DVD. Of course the movie has multiple sound tracks for different languages, but it also has different scenes with different ratings. You can choose to see the G version, the R version the X version. And in any case you can choose to see or not see the sex, violence, toilet humor or destuction of plants and animals.

Critics will love these multi-scene movies! They will argue about which version is the best, and when thr PG version seems just perfect, they will argue that the sex in the R version must have been totally gratuitous.

I'd definitely like to see the versions that, at least, leave out violence, toilet humor and car chases.

Monday, May 08, 2006

“This is Detroit. Cars get stolen:"

The Virtual Tourist recently mentioned my experience having a rented car stolen. I appreciate his fuzzing the details a bit to protect the anonymous, but I've decided to supply a few details of this rich, multilayered story.

In 1985 I spent a week in Detroit helping to prepare for the most expensive trade show booth in trade show history ($120 million for one booth for a single three-day show, in fact, and I'm not kidding). I had just returned from a day off and expected to meet several business associates I wanted to impress. I dropped off my big rental car at the hotel valet parking, not even stopping to take my suitcase out of the trunk, and hurried into the hotel to meet my associates. They were forming up to go to dinner, so I volunteered to drive four of them. We returned to the valet parking, where my car keys were not to be found in the valet office. I searched the entire car park (several levels, holding some 250 cars) while my associates drifted off without me. The car was gone.

I learned several fascinating things that night. The police wanted a precise description of the car including the Vehicle Id number. In Detroit at that time it was legal to shoot to kill car thief. They did not want to shoot someone over the wrong car.
Second, when you tell any rental car company that your car has been stolen, they want you to give them the keys. They get really, really upset if you don't have the keys; I think rental car companies believe that valet parking is a fairytale.
Third, when you drop your car off to a valet, make sure you get his name. What if he's an impostor and the valet company insists you never gave them your car? (I was lucky; they logged my car in before it was stolen from curbside two minutes later.)
And finally, while the police and the rental company are slowly and painstakingly taking your story, there's no point getting impatient and feeling that you deserve more sympathy. That's when I was told, “Look, this is Detroit! Cars get stolen here.”

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Programming for the two big I's (7) The sad tale of the terrific chipset:

A while ago, I started a long story about my experiences working on a project that "two big I" companies developed together. The story starts there, and the previous installment is here.

Today's story is the sad tale of the terrific chipset. One of the two big I companies makes a living designing wonderful, complex chips. Our division's mission was chips that would play video and show pictures on a PC, in a year when this was still revolutionary. The hardware designers asked the marketing planners what the video chip should do. The marketers, basically, said "Everything!" At that time they could foresee most of what a video chip might be asked to do on a computer, but they could not prioritize, nor accept a design that would support only a few choice morcels of the full potential.

The hardware people responded by designing a pair of chips that, together, did Everything. They developed these chips and handed them off to the programmers. Can you see what's coming?

The video chipset that did everything was horribly complex to program (and expensive to manufacture, too). A customer programmer could easily misprogram it so as to hang a computer or even destroy a CRT. One of the big I's programmers was given the task of learning the hardware and writing a software package, a programming interface ("API"), that would make it possible for a programmer to use the video chips safely. He did this. In the process, he supported only about 50% of what the video chip could do.

His API was still to complicated for most humans to use. Another programmer studied this API and wrote two more APIs that used it, one for still images and one for motion video. He implemented a portion of what the first API supported, exposing perhaps 25% of all the magic the chips could do.

The other big I company realized that these two APIs - for video and pictures - were still too complicated to release to customers. (This is a fascinating issue that I will discuss in the future.) They insisted on one more API - to call the other APIs - that would only allow a customer programmer to do safe things easily. That was my job: an API to display pictures and play video EASILY and safely. I eventually doubled the total amount of software and supported less than 10% of what the hardware could do.

Why did each of us programmers support less and less chip functionality? In principle it was possible to support all of it, but it was very time consuming to allow more features while preventing the customer programs from issuing ridiculous command mistakes. Prudence, and a limit to programming resources, dictated a strategy of limiting functionality to whatever seemed safest to support.

The hardware designers knew what was going on, and they were wildly upset that the software was preventing access to most of their chips' capabilities. They could have designed a chip to do the little that I was supporting much faster and much cheaper.

I had no sympathy for them. I believed that Marketing (which was pretty happy with our eventual subset) should have prioritized in the first place. And the hardware designers should have refused to implement Everything when Marketing asked them to.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Putting Large Things on top of Smaller Things:

There's a Monty Python skit about a club devoted to putting things on top of other things. I've found it's more interesting to specialize: put large things on top of smaller things when the time is right. I can't really generalize about this, but I do have two good examples enough for a blog entry.

  • You're trying to store lot of pots, pans and utensils in a storage space. One of the items is a large baking pan. You might think you should put the pan in first ad put smaller items on top of it. But the sides of the pan create a boundary, limiting the size of what you can put next to it. Instead, put everything else in first, then put the baking pan, upside down, on top of everything else.
  • I was trying to fit a large dish into a crowded fridge and there seemed to be no room, until I carefully centered something smaller underneath it. The dish was now four inches above everything else on that refrigerator shelf, and it cleared everything, giving it lots of room.

    Other real-life examples will be appreciated. Comments?
  • Wednesday, May 03, 2006

    Going, Going, Up!

    I remember a time when housing prices rose rapidly in our community. How rapidly? Let me tell you a little story. A couple we knew divorced. The house had to be sold, and the ex-wife, a real estate agent, placed it on the market at what we thought was an aggressively high price.
    After a few months the house had not sold. She raised the price. In fact she raised it several times before selling it after nine months.

    Tuesday, May 02, 2006

    Hymne National:

    Our president's comment on "Nuestro Himno" (a spanish version of Our National Anthem) was:
    "I think the national anthem ought to be sung in English,"
    When I heard that, my immediate reaction was, I'd rather our national anthem was sung in every language. Now this might make you feel good: the Tucson citizen reports that:
    Late last month, a young Tohono O'odham, Mike Enis, sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the State of the County luncheon in the O'odham language.

    (I believe the American Indian word O'odham is pronounced something like “autumn.”) The reporter, Anne T. Denogean, wrote:
    It was a respectful, solemn rendition that moved the crowd to silence, even after he was done. Though the words were unfamiliar, I felt the catch in my throat at the same notes that grab me in the original.

    Pima County Supervisors' Chairman Richard ElĂ­as said this is the second year the song has been performed at the luncheon in O'odham and he's heard nothing but positive comments, that "it was beautiful and it was interesting."

    Two languages down, more than sixty-eight to go!

    Monday, May 01, 2006

    Between the one gallon bag and the 13 gallon bag lies ...

    Between the one gallon plastic bag and the 13 gallon plastic bag lies ... what? This dreadful gap in plastic kitchen bags causes leftover crises when the 1g bag simply won't fit over a serving dish. There ought to be more choice!
    And yet there is more choice. In our local supermarkets, there's a larger and wider bag we can use, free, to pack our fresh fruits and veggies in. One form of this bag comes in large packs that lie flat and are easy to use. I tried to buy a pack at the super today.
    I expected it to be cheap. After all, the store can afford to give them away with small amounts of green goods. But I was told, "This time you can have it free." I'm delighted, I'm all set to handle those difficult leftover storage problems, and I still wonder what they will cost next time.

    SIDE NOTE: There is, of course, store advertising printed on every one of these bags. My wife feels that the print can seep through the plastic and affect the food. Comments, please?