Monday, October 30, 2006

"My name is Rachel Corrie and I ..."

Several times yesterday I heard a fine, affecting ad for the play, My Name is Rachel Corrie. The ad includes a short speech by director/writer Alan Rickman, an admiring quote from a prominent review, and ends something like this: "My name is Rachel Corrie is now playing at the so and so theater on such street in ..."

Now please forgive me, because this is really awful, but it IS the end of a politically fractious October, and I was really expecting to hear the ad end like this: "My name is Rachel Corrie and I approved this advertisement."

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Would You (8) open an email from someone named:

Would You open an email from someone named:
Meatball Speculation

And would you open an email with this subject line:
This is going to Expolad
magnetic tape effeminate
reptilian life
fungal fulfilled

And would you seek the "Universtiy degree you've always wanted"
from someone named:

Friday, October 27, 2006

Surprise Trout!

My uncle was walking home from the subway, a five minute stroll through a rundown West Side Manhattan neighborhood. As he passed a musician lugging a bass fiddle in the opposite direction, he said to himself, “My wife’s planning a surprise birthday party for me!” His birthday came the following week, so he soon found out he was right. Here’s how he reasoned, quite correctly:
What’s a bass fiddle player doing in this neighborhood?
He might be rehearsing with my wife. [His wife was a fine accompanist and chamber music player.]
Hmmm, my favorite piece, Schubert’s Trout Quintet, uses a bass fiddle.
Why didn’t my wife say anything about this?
It’s my birthday next week, she’s planning to surprise me with a performance of the Trout!

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Grape Leaves!

I’ve always thought of grape leaves as a professionals-only ingredient that must be stuffed in some time-consuming, precise fashion. But recently I bought a bottle of ordinary grape leaves, preserved in an acidular (citrusy) liquid. (My brand is: Baktat.) I’ve been adding them to my cooked vegetable dishes. They are very easy to work with, you can cook them as much or as little as you like, and they add depth and fascination to a dish in their own unique way. Try them. Grape Leaves!

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Maintenance costs - plummeting like memory:

In the 1970's and 1980's, there was a rule of thumb about maintenance for electronic devices: you should expect to pay about 1% of the list price per month on support and repair costs. You could do that regularly via a maintenance contract, or you could take your chances and pay the same in occasional catastrophic repairs. Here's a simple application of this rule, in a conversation that was typical for those times:

"Wow! They're remaindering a Line Printer that cost $50,000 for $500. Should I buy it?"
"Well that remainder price is cheap, but you should expect to spend about $400 per month to maintain it. Can you afford the maintenance cost?"
"No, I guess not."

Today we expect a lot of hardware to last for years, maintenance free. Everyone has a shock-story about a product that really let them down, but the relative lack of tubes, wires, hand-soldering, overly complex boards and moving parts has changed the face of maintenance, and the normal cost has plummeted.

I know you appreciate not having to pay ten cents for every memory bit you own. Now think about how maintenance has gotten astronomically cheaper too.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Let the deep pocket fix it!

You know how it is when some stupid law is passed, and you look around in hopes of finding some group that's wounded enough, or rich enough, to try to fix it? Well time may have come for our stupid expansion of the patent system. We have far-too-basic software patents, and now we even have patents of "business methods." A few years ago somebody decided that methods of filing taxes are business methods, and some of them have been patented. So we now have a ridiculous situation that will affect many of the richest and greediest US cits. Maybe they'll pull a few lobbyists out of their pockets to make some law changes about patents.

Patenting methods of filing taxes means that you might come up with a neat, legal tax shelter. But a few years later, someone with a patent on creating that tax shelter sues you for all your money gains. Or they might even sue to force you to stop using your tax shelter.

Some overly simple examples illustrate how silly this can be:

  • Shortly after the income tax system becomes law, somebody patents the idea of declaring dependants for a deduction. Now the US law INTENDED to give everyone this benefit, but instead it would be controlled at the whim of the patent holder.

  • Someone with a patent on saving taxes by setting up a 401-K forces you to break your 401-k and withdraw your money. They don't care if that will increase your tax liability. They just don't feel like licensing the right to use a 401-k, to you.

Hey, Rich People: Go stop those "business method" patents!

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Black Jack Memories:

Many years ago I attended a three-day conference on statistical modeling in Las Vegas. I prepared for this conference by learning how to count cards. After spending about six hours watching people play black jack, I played, finishing exactly one dollar ahead after eight hours of play. The fascinating part was watching other people.
I watched them simply throw $25 chips away on terrible bets. I could not imagine these people's relationship to their money.

I watched a crooked dealer at a $1 dollar game. He would pretend to shuffle but actually slide the halves of the deck together unshuffled. The players, mostly middle-aged women, chatted among themselves and seemed not to notice. It struck me that I would never have the nerve to report him to anybody. Vegas! (Who knows who might be in on the scheme.) I watched a $10 chip game where four players were doing well. The pit boss replaced the dealer - a young woman - with a hatchet-faced man in his forties. The first hand, all the players got high hands but the dealer got a blackjack and won. He dealt himself a winning twenty in the next hand. The players all got up and walked off to play at other tables.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Supertax Me:

A certain Martin B. Schmidt, a professor of Economics at the College of William & Mary, has written an Op Ed piece for the New York Times called SuperTax Me. In the column, he proposes to eliminate part of the American obesity epidemic caused by fast food. His idea is to TAX fast food, raising its cost to the point where it will be consumed less often. Now I'm not sure he isn't joking, but my first reaction to his proposal was simply: instinct tells me it's a bad idea. But then I realized: it's GOT to be a bad idea, because I have a much better one! Here's the best way to raise the cost of fast food:

First, we want the federal government to pass a law requiring all states to design two-page forms that every person who attends a fast food joint must fill out. (Unfunded federal mandates are always the way to go, aren't they?) The law will require these forms to be no less complex than a typical tax form. People will think twice about running to MacDonald's when faced, once again, with questions about why they are buying this food, how many calories they expect to consume, what percentage of their income they expect to spend, what percentage of their vehicle's life possibly remains, etc. The filled-out forms will be entered into databases for future analysis by Professor Schmidt and his colleagues.

Filling out the forms falsely will of course be a felony, so eventually we'll get some of those fast-food gorgers behind bars where we can really control their calory intake. I think that ought to do it.

Update: Professor Schmidt asks me to clarify that his piece did not address the relative merits of fast food. Rather, he focused on the simple equation of calories in versus calories out, noting that those who "drive through" to pick up their food expend fewer calories than those who walk into the restaurant. Now I personally DO address the merits of fast food, and consequently I suggested requiring all fast food purchasers to fill out my suggested questionnaire. But it would have been more in the spirit of professor Schmidt's op-ed column, had I merey required hanging the questionnaire at the drive in window.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

A sign you’ll be happy to ignore:

Picture this: you’re driving about 10 mph over the speed limit on a high speed road in a dense, dense fog. Big signs materialize from the fog; you have about a second to read each one. A sign flashes by that says: “Speed Limit enforced from Aircraft.” I think we can ignore this one, don’t you? Yes, I know we should slow down.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

AT&T War Story #7:

In 1984, AT&T formed a computer division, intending to become one of the top hardware and software vendors in no time. AT&T already built computers (somewhat special purpose ones, as phone system controllers). All they needed was a little repurposing. Oh, and they also needed some software products to sell. Soon the computer division had hundreds of product managers, tasked to do anything, anything, to get new products out the door.

The computer division had plenty of money to spend, but that money was rarely in the budgets of people who needed it. And money had to be spent fast, to create new products or – much more often – to rebrand existing products as AT&T “me too" products. The managers who had to get outside companies to work for them had little authority of their own. They also dreaded going through AT&T’s “contract process”, wherein some fuddy-duddy with no sense of urgency would hold them up until each contract looked just right. To make matters worse, A&T had an official policy about how to set up an emergency budget. I’ve read this policy – it was a five hundred page notebook – and it typically took about eight months to approve an emergency budget. So what’s a manager to do?

Someone, somewhere came up with a solution that spread like an “idea virus” throughout the division: the Letter of Intent. In such a letter, the manager writes to a vendor ordering some work, and states that “AT&T intends to pay for this work.” There’s no contract, but most companies were willing to gamble that AT&T would stand behind the “intent” statement. I wrote a letter of intent myself for AT&T in 1985 to commission $20,000 of work for a convention demo.

It was particularly egregious for me to write a letter of intent, as I was not even an employee. I knew that “everyone was doing it”, but I also knew that, officially, AT&T only allowed a few people to make such commitments.

Now here’s the interesting part of the story. In about July 1985, after about 14 months and hundreds of letters of intent, upper management discovered what had been going on. We all got a memo explaining, in the strongest possible terms, that there would be NO MORE LETTERS OF INTENT. Every manager was to render an accounting of all such letters sent, because AT&T intended to honor every one of them, and the company wished to assess its liability. Of course it took more than a year for AT&T to find out what they owed via those letters. Managers had quit after sending them; other managers had no idea whom they’d made commitments to. And the bills for “intent” work just kept rolling in.

Since then I’ve always remembered the power of a Letter of Intent. Who knows when I might want to send, or to receive one?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Another good podcast: Griddlecakes:

At Griddlecakes, Ron is an excellent storyteller. (And he’s usually assisted by that other “Ron”, a voice in his head.) He has a fine way with words, exemplified by his decision to call his podcasts “Griddlesodes”. As an introduction, I recommend the brief 18th episode, in which he discusses the difference between radio and podcasting. His examples are off the wall, laugh out loud surprises, not anything you might expect.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Reverse Lob that Taser:

This item's from News of the Weird. G2 Consulting, an Arizona company, has created a polyester fabric that neutralizes shots from a Taser gun, basically forming an electric loop on the cloth and sending the charge back into the gun. G2 Consulting Co.'s Thor Shield is now marketed only to law enforcement and military agencies, for their own personnel to wear. I'm sure that criminals will never get their hands on this stuff.

Oh, if you're wondering why the world needs ThorShield ... probably has something to do with the fact that criminals have gotten their hands on Tasers, something that was never ever going to happen. And criminals will never get hold of this wearable power suit either.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Yet another Sports Malaprop:

I follow sports just enough to hear my fair share of dreadful malaprops. Here's a new one:
"... Leftwich has total control of what he wants to do with the football."

Okay, let's see what that means. I personally DON'T have total control of what I want to do with a football. I know this, because I remember a game where I really wanted to throw the ball to my tallest receiver, but at the last moment, I succumbed to an urge to throw to my fastest receiver instead.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Mike Myers is ubiquitous. To me, anyway.

This story is yet another example of my mind playing a trick on myself, a wonderful way to keep one amused:
Several people walked down a hall past me, deep in discussion, and I heard one of them mention "The Austin Powers of Google." It took me a whole minute to realize what he'd really said.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

How bad was my back pain ...

Occasionally a muscle in my back spasms tight, causes pain, and it takes about a week for me to get the muscle loose and recover from the resulting inflammation. But recently I had a really bad back spasm. I was telling myself that I USED to have spasms this bad, but I really hadn't experienced such a one for fifteen years or more. Was I right? You be the judge:

When your back is bad, there are a bunch of things you can do to help it. I immediately remembered Exercise #1, which is to lie on your belly for ten minutes. (That exercise was hard for physical therapists to discover, because lying down that way makes your back feel worse and worse for about five minutes, as your disks gradually move to a better position; but then you start to feel much less pain and your back is now better aligned.)

After ten minutes it was time to stand up. Holy Moley, how do I do that? I had forgotten how hard it is to get up off the floor when almost every strength move or body shift makes you hurt worse. I was lying in the empty middle of a room. I slowly slithered to the nearest chair, grasped it and levered myself up. In fifteen years I'd forgotten to do Exercise #1 right next to a chair.

Specialization in Gas Jockeys:

My car has a slow oil leak, and on a recent Sunday I just had to get a few quick quarts of oil. I also needed gas (and I was in a hurry) so I figured I’d stop at one of the usual places, and while filling up I’d say, “and also check the oil, I think I need a quart.”

I’ve done exactly that many times in the past, and I can’t count the number of times a gas jockey has first offered to check the oil for me. (I usually decline unless I feel like standing next to him, watching like a hawk and making sure he doesn’t create a need for maintenance.) So I was just floored by the guy’s response when I asked him to check my oil:

”Sorry, the mechanic’s not here today. I don’t know how to check the oil.” Now I’d happily go on a rant about how civilization’s becoming overspecialized, if only I knew how to change the oil myself.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Gas Prices? Chicken Prices?

Brandon Hansen, the OmniNerd, has a rather technical article suggesting that shopping around for better gasoline prices is a relatively poor way to save money. He suspects that we hurt for better gas prices because gasoline pricing is so "in your face." But shopping for cheaper food, produce and drugs will save more money with less effort. Okay, let's imagine that as we drive around, we see gigantic signs advertizing: "Chicken, $0.699/pound".

Monday, October 09, 2006

The Invisible Floating Metal Shard:

I'm sure you remember the essay I wrote on August 6, in which my attempts to communicate wih my mp3 player's poker-faced ON button metamorphosed into a metaphor of meaning for the entire universe. In brief, I sometimes needed up to sixteen attempts to turn my player on. But extensive experiments and philosophizing enabled me to discover that I could get it on within TWO tries, by pressing only the left edge of the ON button. And I reported this with great glee.

So I was far too ashamed to admit that as soon as I published this essay, my edge-pressing technique failed. Not an utter failure mind you, but certainly a sobering one. Usually I got the player on in two tries, but it might take four, six or ten. Keeping this tradgedy to myself, I worked furiously to develop a new attack on the player. I felt like a doctor diagnosing among complex diseases on the basis of one vague symptom. I was a "Doctor House" of sick technology, perhaps. But now that I can turn my player on in at most three tries, I'm ready once again to talk about it.

My theory is that under the ON button there's piece of loose metal that the has to be pushed when that button is pressed. That loose piece might, at any time, be to the left, the right, or the center of the button. So if pressing the left edge of the ON button fails, I press the right or its center. I have no idea whether this bit of metal exists, as I have never taken the player apart. (A hardware-astute friend says that what I'm calling a metal shard might be a loose rubber gasket.) But its nominal existence seems to be just what I need to posit, to know how to turn the player on.

If my new method fails, I'll let you know. Eventually.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Microsoft to take over virus checking?

Several of the big anti-virus companies are complaining that Microsoft's next operating system, VISTA, will prevent them from doing their job. Microsoft will apparently provide its own anti-virus software. But the other companies say that VISTA will not allow them to "hook in" deep enough to provide decent, third party anti-virus protection.

I have two strong opinions in this matter, and - strangely - they are in direct conflict with each other. Here they are, for your reading pleasure:
  1. YES! Anti-virus software belongs in the operating system, and - hurray! - Microsoft is finally going to put it there. There have been several sad cases in the past where whole industries sprang up to fill a hole in Windows, which Microsoft later squashed by adding their own similar software. But this case is special The best anti-virus protection should be built hand in hand with the OS, and Microsoft's doing the right thing.

  2. NO! After the other anti-virus vendors fade away, we'll have just one - Microsoft. They'll be a sitting duck for the virus writers in this world, and any hole found in Vista's code will be exploitable on EVERYBODY'S system. We're better off now, where a virus that beats Symantec fails against Zone Alarm, etc. And we're MUCH better off paying all these companies to research better virus checking, than trusting all the responsibility to fewer heads and a single culture at Microsoft.

I'm afraid my point #2 trumps my point #1. Very afraid.

Update:Sandi Hardmeier argues well here that the road to Security involves keeping anti-virus companies out of the Windows Kernel. So if my point #1 should trump point #2, I think we still need a way to allow other companies to insert contrasting types of anti-virus software into VISTA, even if Microsoft gets to act as the arbitrary gatekeeper about what to allow in.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Baseball again: two runners out at home.

An amazing, unusual thing happened in the Met's playoff game last night. Two Los Angeles runners were heading to home plate, about forty feet apart, and Valentin, the Met's excellent catcher, tagged them both out. If you want to know how this unusual situation arose, please read the papers or catch some sports commentators on TV. But none of these sources will tell you the most amazing part of this play, so I'm going to explain it to you right here.

The basic situation is that the batter hit the ball against the right field wall, and the right fielder threw it back toward home. Meanwhile, a slow runner on second and a fast runner from first were heading home. Valentin is looking to his right, where the thrown baseball is coming from. He's not allowed to block home plate until he actually holds the ball, so he's a little to the right of home plate. He knows a runner is coming home. The moment he catches the ball, he spins to his left - and there's the runner coming to him - and he tags the runner out.

Now picture the important part. In making this tag, Valentin has spun around so that he's facing the stands behind home plate. If he just stood there feeling good for one second, the other runner would score. But he's a smart player. He knows there are two other runners on the bases, and who knows what they're up to. So he immediately spins back around and looks at the field and - you can see he's surprised - here comes another runner whom he tags out.

That second out looked so easy that the commentators were struggling to explain why that runner tried to score. But it was Valentin's "smarts" that made the runner look bad. Many another catcher would have relaxed after that first out and never caught the second runner.

By the way, suppose those two runners had approached home plate just a few feet apart? What might have happened? (The more you know about baseball's arcane "interference" rules, the more fascinating this question gets.)

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Big Brother is Tracking you ...

You probably realize that in order for your cell phone to work, computers are tracking your location all the time the phone is on. (Apparently there has been a criminal case in which a defendant turned his cell phone off for awhile, and this was taken as evidence he was trying to hide.) Do you think it's creepy to have cellphone computers tracking you? Well let me give you some perspective.

About fifteen years ago (I'm not sure of the date), researchers at Xerox Parc announced they had developed a phone system that followed people around their labs. Everyone carried an ID card that was detected by monitors in the buildings, and as someone put it, "If you're walking down a hallway and a phone rings near you, you should answer it; it's for you!"

I talked to many people about thts idea of being tracked so that a phone system could find you, and almost everyone reacted the same way. It was creepy; they didn't want any computer system to know how they were spending their time; it wasn't worth the loss of privacy to be able to get your phone calls.

That was then; the cellphone network is now. (For that matter, what the cellphone network does, is not quite the same as what Xerox Parc's computers were doing.) But why have our attidudes changed so much?

"Data is the pollution of the 21st century"

"Data is the pollution of the 21st century" is an epigram that security expert Bruce Schneier uttered recently. He explains that every action we take tends to cause someone to log info about us, and this tendency - and the amount of data logged - will increase, whether we are looking at the web, moving about, using a cell phone or buying things (et cetera). And, he says, "we have no idea how to dispose of this data safely."

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

In Vista, Microsoft tries to solve one of my most painful problems!

Last May 15, 2005, I whined about really awful "message boxes", which ask you a complicated question and then invite you to answer by clicking YES or NO. You can spend a lot of time deciding which answer means what action. A Microsoft Vista developer recently offered this example:
Do you want to save your work or lose it forever?"
And now you have to decide whether to click YES or NO.

This problem is endemic to all current operating systems and web pages, because programmer laziness or the software API makes it much, much too easy to ask a YES/NO question. In Vista (and maybe even, somehow, in XP), it will be easy (see the web page I linked to above) to compose message boxes with buttons labeled like these:

  • Save your work, keep changes.

  • Discard your work, lose your changes forever.

I can't tell you how delighted this makes me, except for one minor detail: Microsoft deprecates this feature, warning that "This function is available through Microsoft Windows XPA Service Pack 2 (SP2) and Windows Server 2003. It might be altered or unavailable in subsequent versions of Windows."

Monday, October 02, 2006

Do not put a banana in a CD jewel case:

Do not try to put a banana in a CD jewel case. Do place a banana and a CD jewel case close together, tempting them to try this stunt by themselves. I'm warning you about this only because I've discovered that it can be done. Details are not available upon request.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

A little philosophy about learning:

I've always been good at learning from other's mistakes. In fact much of what I do right, I learned by not doing what others do wrong.

But I'm not bragging about this. When you associate with people who do things spectacularly right, and learn from them, you learn faster, better and deeper. If that's how YOU learn, you've got something to brag about.

Lifetime Achievement Podcast award:

Today we proudly announce that the Nobodies Podcast has received the "Precision Blogging Not safe For Work but Otherwise High Quality Lifetime Podcasting Achievement Award." This is the only award we will be announcing this year. (You can refer to this award as the NSFWOHQLPAA when pressed for time.) Here's their RSS Feed.