Thursday, November 30, 2006

Harder than calculating a tip:

When you have a sitdown meal in a restaurant, the waiter takes your order and serves you food, you have to decide how much to tip. But what about those restaurants where you do most of the ordering/serving business yourself? Here's my rule, a good one, I think: either bus your own table, or leave a tip.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

A Gutsy Online Coffee Shop:

I buy very expensive, delicious coffee – from time to time – from This website is run by George Howell, who, many years ago, operated the best online and "bricks and mortar" coffee places, called “The Coffee Connection” (in Boston). Terroir sells carefully selected, carefully prepared, often free-trade coffee. I recently got an order from them, and a week later received this email:
Dear customer,
In line with our mission of providing only exemplary quality we are shipping you, at our expense, another shipment of the Kenya Mamuto you just received. It was roasted too darkly, excessively masking the intense blackberry notes that make this coffee so extraordinary.
Kenya coffees are the most challenging coffees to roast, tolerating very little variance, with mere seconds making significant differences in the flavor profile. We apologize for any inconvenience we may have caused.

I tasted the replacement coffee this morning. Now here’s the thing: If I couldn’t taste the difference, would I ever buy from them again? How could I spend all those dollars on their coffee if I was oblivious to their subtlety?

Fortunately, I could taste a difference. I think Terroir showed immense respect for their customers, treating me this way, and I look forward to buying more of their coffee soon.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Photcopying - blank your mind:

Many times I've faced the task of manually, page by page, copying a long article or even a whole book. Thank God that need arises less often in this digital age. Photocopying hundreds of pages is similar to many forms of repetitive exercise. You have to relax into it, give your mind wholly over to it in an emptyish way, and then the work flows without boredom. The bottom line: fifteen minutes or two hours later, a little chunk of your life has mysteriously vanished, and you’ve got this extra copy of whatever.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Extension cord!

I traveled last week, with four gizmos that enjoy overnight recharging. I had the happy thought to bring one of those extension cords with eight sockets. I left all the rechargers plugged into the extension, so all I had to do at a motel was plug in the extension and drop the devices into their several cradles. Very neat!

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Another fake fake; I love this stuff:

I'm not sure what art is, but I do understand that fake art is more valuable than fake fake art. Prosecutors in Dresden, Germany, charged Petra Kujau, 47, with fraud recently for selling at least 500 fake paintings of such artists as Monet, Picasso and Van Gogh. However, the paintings were always clearly labeled as fakes, according to an April Times of London dispatch, and their sale was a crime only because Petra claimed they had been painted by Konrad Kujau (her great uncle), who had a worldwide reputation as a master faker. Thus, Petra is charged with duping collectors into thinking that they were buying original Konrad Kujau classic fakes. [The Times (London), 4-22-06, reported at News of the Weird.]

Friday, November 24, 2006

Second Floor!

The company I work at has my office on the first floor, and the debugging lab on the third floor. I go back and forth between these two locations a lot. So much in fact, that I always forget the second floor exists. If the elevator opens at the second floor, I get off, assuming I've reached my more distant destination. But I've thought up a solution to my problem: I need to post a sign on the second floor wall opposite the elevator saying: HEY YOU! DUMMY! THIS HERE IS THE SECOND FLOOR!

Do you think anyone would object if I posted that sign? (Please don't try to help me by suggesting that the second floor should be painted a different color. It already IS a different color. And number of each floor is painted on the linoleum just outside the elevator door. Like I say, I need a SIGN!)

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The relationship between a movie and its preview:

Movie previews hardly ever convince me to see a movie. But a preview can easily convince me that I'd never want to see that movie in a million years. Yet I must say, I do enjoy watching movie previews. How about you?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Should I buy a video player?

On principle, I never watch videos on a computer. Almost never. I listen to audio a lot, usually while doing something else. But you can't watch a video and multitask. Videos require concentration, they require your time, and they must therefore achieve a much higher quality to be worth the effort.

Recently I've been deciding what's the ideal audio player to buy next, and -- this is really amazing -- it's going to be a video player. Studies show that, although every company that makes players is pushing video, few people watch video on those tiny screens. I've got an excuse! There are many university websites with fascinating lectures you can download for free, MIT, Oxford, Harvard, Princeton, etc., and most of these lectures are in a video format, usually MP4. It's a bit of a nuiscance to convert MP4 files to audio only, and I've had the experience of listening to lectures where the speaker pops up a slide, the audience gasps, and there's no clear explanation. So I'm thinking I can MOSTLY isten to video lectures, taking quick peeks to see what the speakers look like, or to see a slide. But really, I can be an audio guy and have much more good stuff within reach, if I buy a video player.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

John Dvorak and the Ten Axioms:

John Dvorak has a charming column on the Ten Axioms of Modern Computing. I know from painful experience that he's talking sense (and so will you). My favorites are:

USE DEFAULTS. Always let the program choose the default during installation. Give up on the idea that you're in charge of the machine ...

UPGRADES DO NOT HELP. When you upgrade software nothing good happens ...

I can add similar advice from my own exprience. When a program prompts you to press "any key", you should press either the space bar or the enter key. You can reasonably assume that these have been tested. Do not risk pressing any other keys, and in particular, DO NOT press the "esc" key.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

A difficult jigsaw puzzle:

On about my 12th birthday I received a gift: a 1000 piece M&B jigsaw puzzle titled "Trout Fishing." This was some tough puzzle! Almost all the pieces were an impressionist mix of dark greens and browns. Nearly half the pieces had three almost straight edges plus one tab or bay. It took my whole family and many visitors six weeks to do this puzzle. So: how difficult was it? Let me put it this way: when there was just one piece left, that piece did not fit in the remaining space! We searched for five minutes to find the ever so slightly different piece that we had misfit elsewhere.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

A Clear Memory of:

When my wife and I spend nights together away from home, we take our modest silver collection and hide it. I always hide the silver in a place I'll call the rumpus room, but last time I decided instead to put it in the chaos room. Now whenever one makes such a momentous change, it's really important to remember it. I didn't relish coming home, looking in the old place and wondering where our silver was. But I now realize that I constructed the wrong memory. I carefully imagined myself putting the silver in the new place, the chaos room ...

So here it is, a few days later, and I go to get the silver. Of course I go to the usual old place, and it's not there. My heart stops for just a little while, then I think hard and I remember: of course, the chaos room! And all is well. With hindsight I can assure you that I should have constructed the following memory instead: Imagining myself looking in the rumpus room and saying, oh, the silver's in the chaos room!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Garmin for Klutzes!

I have a womderful new gadget, called the Garmin Forerunner 205. For me, this wrist-worn device is a deadly accurate, silent outdoor pedometer, faithfully recording the sum of my daily walks. (It requires line-of-sight to GPS satellites, so when walking indoors I track my step totals instead.)

The Garmin Forerunner and many similar devices are designed to work well for walkers, but their real market is people doing serious exercise. I can spend much more than the device cost to use training and mapping programs on the web. (Without paying extra, I can upload my Garmin data to see maps and analytics of where I've been and what I've done.) Runners and bikers can pay to download challenging courses and share well-designed workouts. I appreciate that Garmin's Marketing department has targeted a highly motivated, highly skilled community with money to spend. But I wish they had the sense to target the "long tail" of potential customers more like me. I would have bought this device years ago if ever I had heard of it. (Thanks to Dick DeBartolo of the Daily GizWIz for bringing it to my attention.)

Now kindly bear in mind that the last time my son and I went to Shea Stadium for a Mets game, it took me fifteen minutes in the dark to find my car. The next time I park in a big outdoors lot, I'll store the car's location in my Garmin. Then later I can simply ask the Garmin to navigate me back to my car! But do you think Garmin advertizes this feature? Oh, of course not.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Unintended Consequences: Legitimizing file sharing!

The Microsoft Zune is about to burst upon the commercial music scene. Intended as an "iPod Killer," the Zune and its world seem rather short of functionality, except for one thing: It's going to be pretty easy to share music from your Zune with other people's Zunes. Your Zune will detect anyone else's Zune within thirty feet or so and give you an opportunity to trade songs. (According to Zunalysts on the web, this feature is peculiarly crippled in that, should you even create your own music and share it with Zune friends, they will be able to play it only three times within three days before it disappears.)

I'm going to make a fearless prediction about this Zune feature. Whether the Zune succeeds or not, this sharing feature will have a dreadful (from Microsoft's point of view) unintended consequence: it will legitimize file sharing, making it more acceptable to people in general, by ANY legal or illegal manner. (Another way to say this: the Zune will cause millions more Americans to become targets for RIAA lawsuits against music customers for illegal downloading.)

To understand my prediction, it’s important to consider that when a market leader enters a market, they tend to make it much more respectable. There were PCs aplenty in 1980, but when IBM started to sell PCs, it became respectable to own one or even use it in business. Similarly, the iPod legitimized buying songs online, Viagra legitimized every hairbrained pill for treating sexual dysfunction, and and Minoxidil (Rogaine) legitimized every other chemical method of restoring hair. The unsubtle distinctions between legal and illegal, possible and impossible, are lost on people (as you can easily see from the spam you get about Viagra alternatives). Similarly, Microsoft’s carefully controlled song sharing on the Zune will simply be seen as “song sharing.”

Worse, many people will be unsatisfied with how well Microsoft’s Zune handles sharing, and they will seek out the much better alternatives available on the net. Just you watch…

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Procrastinating from the heart:

I often futz around and pull it all together - whatever IT is - at the last moment. But only recently did I realize how natural procrastination is to me. I shall explain:

My radio program begins at 6 a.m., and at that time I must have the station antenna turned on, the day-starting announcment queued to play, and some music queued up that has not played on our station for six weeks. I used to arrive about 5:50 to 5:55, giving me just time to check out my ideas of what to play first and get everything queued up. But recently I realized that I can search from home to see whether a particular piece has been played recently. (You can too! Go to, click "search", select "fuzzy" search and check for a favortie piece or composer.) Anyway, I now decide the night before exactly what I will play first, running the search to make sure it wasn't played recently. And wouldn't you know it? I now arrive at the station about 5:58 instead of 5:50 or 5:55.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Interoffice Envelope Return Address:

If you've worked in offices in the last century, you're familiar with the interoffice envelope, a strong, flat container for 8.5x11 paper that's designed to deliver mail many times over. The outside of these envelopes usually has many lined areas in which to write the addressee's name and mail stop. Here's an example of a Government interoffice envelope. Now typically, when you want to use one of these, you grab a used one from a pile somewhere, cross out the last person's name, write in your addressee's, drop it in an "out box", and away it goes. This is getting really boring, isn't it?

Now, wake up and think about this question: How do you put a return address on one of these envelopes? This is not a dumb question. You might really want to get the thing back if your addressee has just been fired. Or you might feel that you'll get better priority when the addressee sees who it's from. Now here's how I do it, and I must say, it strikes me as bizarre:

  1. Make sure all previous addressee names on the envelope are crossed out.

  2. Address the envelope to yourself.

  3. Cross out your name and mailstop.

  4. Address the envelope to the addressee of your choice.

The person who receives the envelope may see your crossed-out name next to theirs, and suspect the thing came from you.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

A hearing aid that looks like an iPod:

Many hard-of-hearing people do not get hearing aids because they would be embarrassed to wear them. It's time for Apple to make the great, humanitarian gesture, and license the look and feel of their iPods to companies that make hearing aids. No stigma attaches to wearing iPODs, almost anywhere.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The IRS wants to tax your Mobuls (or Lindens, or whatever):

The IRS is making noises about taxing the money people make playing online games like Second Life and World of Warcraft. Unlike fungible property in the real world, game-worthy items and currency have no true value until they are actually cashed out. (Okay, in the real world, real estate is like that too.) I expect any attempt to tax game profits will produce wildly unintended results, and little revenue. But the IRS employees who are detailed to enforcing such collections (instead of wasting their time uncovering scams by rich people, say) will have a good time online.

The problem, as I see it, is that income tax collection in the real world is made possible by extensive laws, customs and tracking mechanisms that just barely work. In made-up online worlds, where normal law hardly applies, it will be much easier to set up tax dodges, gray markets, money-laundering operations, and other mechanisms to make the value of money hard to track or count. And I'm sure the people who program these games will help the players to hide wealth, perhaps even to the extent that these games become a way to hide real world wealth from taxes.

I look forward to a tax evasion case in which the IRS insists that to some extent, the online game is governed by real world laws and therefore taxes are due on wealth; but in certain other respects, the game is fantastical and the defendant is not entitled to a depreciation credit for his middle-earth mithril/silver mine, or his support of, oh, say, an asylum for homeless orphan dwarves. Stay tuned for the ridiculous...

Monday, November 06, 2006

Blueberries on Cape Cod:

One summer in my teen years, my family rented a lightly furnished place in Cape Cod for two weeks by a beach. We swam, played in the sand, hunted shells and wandered way out on the sand flats. My parents talked to natives and friends visiting there, and time and again people praised the blueberries. They were ripe, they were delicious, there was nothing like Cape Cod Blues just now, and … whenever we asked where to go pick them, the subject mysteriously changed to other matters.

One morning after breakfast my father gathered up pots, bowls, anything clean that looked like it could hold stuff.
“What are you doing?” we asked.
“We’re going to pick blueberries,” he said.
“But Joe,” my mother said, “nobody’s told you where to find them.”
“We’ll find them,” he said.
We stacked all his containers in the car, hopped in and he drove off. Dad drove around for awhile, finally stopping at a sandy roadside, beyond which we could see a some shrub-filled “bottoms”.
“This looks good,” he said.
We got out of the car, walked past the little sandy dunes, and we were awash in blueberries, wonderful, delicious ones, far more than we could possibly eat, or pick and take home.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Finger Pipelining:

You may never worry about how pianists are able to play so many notes so fast, but trust me, this and similar issues fascinate experimental psychologists. The problem is that pianists (and fast typists, and many other kinds of skilled people) move their fingers faster than they possibly could in response to straghtforward mental motion commands. The phenomena is called "pipelining", and it's believed that our brains queue long series of commands, so that even as one finger motion is performed, the muscles are decoding the next motion and starting to perform it.

One result of pipelining is that more typing is often faster than less. For example, you've just typed the word "distant" but you meant to type "distraught". All you have to do is erase the "an" and enter "raugh" to correct that word, but likely you'll erase the whole word and type in the new one, which will roll off your fingers faster than you could think "minus an, plus raugh".
But if there's an intermediate change or action you need to do frequently, you can force yourself to learn your efficient shortcut, so that it becomes faster than your natural pipelined way of thinking. I found a nice application of this in the (rather long) address list on my PDA. When I want to telephone the place where I get haircuts, I look up "Mystique." The natural pipelining way to do that is to type 'm' and then scroll through a few screens of alphabetized m' entries. But with some effort, I've trained myself to look up Mystique by entering 'n', and scrolling back one line.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Got any counterfeit tens?

The new US $10 bill has such an unsettled, jazzy appearance, that I doubt I'll ever notice if I'm given a counterfeit one. It has just gotten too complicated, for me anyway, to regard with care. (Ironically, Wikipedia says that the $10 was redeisgned in 1891 to make too complex to counterfeit.) Apparently it's possible to obtain "pens" that are scanners, capable of deciding whether a bill is counterfeit, and many cashiers now have them. Best to leave these issues to the silicon smarts.

Tomato final totals: Cherry 489 (delicious!), plum 79, big girl 40.
And there've been dozens more green tomatoes (mostly small), which taste fine when stir-fried with other foods.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Close that parenthesis!

Let me ask you, how powerful is a left parenthensis? You know what I mean, one of these: ( .

The reason I ask is that I never leave a left parenthesis lying around, nor a left bracket, a left widget or a left curly brace. I close them all, typing, sooner or later, the corresponding ) (ahhh, that's better). My compulsion might have to do with my many years of computer programming, in which unbalanced parentheses often reflect the presence of a nasty problem.

The reason I bring this up is that I have a keyboardless PDA, one of those devices that proposes to recognize my handwriting when I write notes. Now I do not rely on handwriting recognizion, using instead a lovely open source onscreen keyboard called MessageEase. But still, it's a lot more effort to do punctuation, and I'd like to type notes that are as short as possible, like this appointment:
11:00 Hairct @ mystiq (Jamie again

The parenthetical part of that note reminds me who's scheduled to cut my hair. There's no need to close that parenthesis, is there? So why do I always add a right paren at the end?
) ahhhhhhh.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Urbanization in the exurbs:

For many years, the blinking traffic lights on the main street of my home town have been a discreet, pleasing indicator that we do not live in a despicably built-up area. Our town lost much forest land in the last forty years, and traffic is ever more a problem. But our local lives are touched by little reminders that we live a slightly slower, quieter, more friendly life than our town-mouse relatives.

To see these blinking traffic lights, you must be up very late or very early. These are normal traffic signals from about 6 a.m. to the following 2 a.m. I've been very aware of them Tuesdays, as I cross the main drag at about 5:45 a.m. on the way to broadcast my radio program.

But recently the lights were reprogrammed, and they're normal twenty-four hours a day, no more blinking red and yellow. Urbanization creeps ...