Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Your calls will be answered in the order ...

I recently left a message at the Pennsylvania Museum's bureau of events. Their recorded announcement made a strange promise: “We will respond to your messages in the order they are received.” So I guess, if they get a difficult message, all the subsequent callers will have to wait until that one gets handled. Gee, whoever recorded their outgoing message must have been thinking of the promise you get when you're put on hold.

Heinz Pickles Repackaged:

My favorite Heinz sweet pickles have been re-labeled. The old label was green. The new label is mostly red. The jar is exactly the same size. The calories per serving is still 30. The fluid ounce total is unchanged. "New packaging, same great taste" says the new label (or something like that). The pickles taste the same. The price is the same. I'm always suspicious when a product is repackaged. It's a price rise somehow. What's going on?

I took a close look at the old and new bottles together, and I've got it. The old bottle says that a serving size is two pickles, and there are 12 serving s per jar. The new label says a serving size (the same 30 calories) is one to one and a half pickles, and there are TEN servings in a bottle, not TWELVE.

I looked more closely at the pickles. Sure enough, the new pickles are larger. I'm sure Heinz squeezed as many of the larger pickles into the bottle as they could, but they don't pack as tight as the smaller pickles, so there are fewer calories per bottle, and more useless liquid to fill that bottle.

Still, there is that great taste ...

Monday, January 29, 2007

Too Many Decisions!!!!

I've recently found many people commenting on a fascinating aspect of human nature: the more choices you have, the harder it is to choose, and the more likely you are to be dissatisfied with your choice. That brings me to a wonderful invention, Accentra's PaperPro Stapler. (I'm not giving you a URL yet, you'll see why in a moment.) (in praise of good design) thinks it's wonderful. Wired Magazine thinks it's wonderful.
This invention uses your routine hand pressure on the stapler to cock a powerful spring that effortlessly drives the staple through the stack of paper. No more frustrating misfired staples to pull out! This is an exciting new invention for the stapler business.

I told myself "I've got to have one!" Even though I don't need it right now, I just want to own it. So I went to the PaperPro website. And here's what I found: They have THREE PaperPro stapler products: "Compact", to staple 2-16 sheets with 5.2lb of pressure. "Desktop", to slug 2-20 sheets with 7.2lb. And "High Capacity", to whomp 2-60 sheets with 12lb of pressure.

Uh Oh. I can't own one until I know what I want it for. I'd hate to buy the most expensive one and never need it. I'd hate to buy the cheap one and then need to staple 60 sheets. I guess ... sigh ... I'm not going to put this one on my wishlist yet.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

My Wife sent me to CVS to buy something I'd never heard of:

My wife sent me to CVS to buy something I'd never heard of. You can guess what happened. I looked at a long isle full of similar products, and I just couldn't find it. I finally begged a CVS employee for mercy, and she found it for me in no time.

Next time I have to find an unfamiliar product, I'll do better. This IS the 21st century after all. I'll examine the product on the web before I shop, so I'll know what it looks like.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Old Dross : Red Potion number 9:

If industrial food colors were good for you, they would have names instead of numbers. (Originally published July 18, 2003.)

Friday, January 26, 2007

Photcopying - blank your mind (2):

Last November I wrote about learning to "blank my mind" and relax, in order to do a long, boring mindless activity like copying a book. Recently I had to copy fifteen pages of something the hard way (no multiple page feeder), and I realized that: the world has changed! I put my earphones on and listened to an interesting podcast while copying. No boredom, No Sweat!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

You're it! No, You!

I've blogged twice about how challenging it can be to send an email to several people. One piece of advice I got was that there should be ONE person in the TO list, everbody else gets a CC. (The challenge here is that the "TO" person is the one who has to do something, you have to know who that is.)

Recently I had to face up to this advice. I needed to know how to do a few things at work, and I did not know who could help me, so I sent an email to four people. Not surprisingly, none of them answered. I suspect they are all busy, and each hoped that one of the other three on the TO list would respond. So today I tried again, but this time I carefully composed my email and then sent it separately to each one. All four people will think I'm depending solely on them, and maybe I'll get four answers.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Hot Pepper Apple Recipe:

I made this up myself. It’s very simple and quite delicious.
  1. Pour some of your favorite hot pepper sauce onto a dish. Examine the dish carefully and make sure you won’t die if you eat that much in a short time.

  2. Wash your apple.

  3. Eat the apple, but before you take each bite, dip the target area of the apple into the hot sauce.
The whole process actually improves as you eat the apple, because the inside of the apple absorbs sauce better than the skin.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Google and its other blah offerings:

Google has released many products and "betas". Some of them have little to do with search, like their online word processor and spreadsheet programs. Google has been widely criticized for many of these side products, even to the extent of being called a "one hit wonder."

Now recently I realized that there's something special about these other product releases. You may know another thing that people say is unusual about the Google company: they let employees spend about 20% of their time on a pet project of their own. Some of these blah side products are the results of those pet projects. Google Marketing doesn't throw cold water on every one of the pet projects their employees complete. Rather, they let the employees see how the world feels about their special ideas, and learn from that.

This is fabulous feedback for a creative employee, and no matter how bad the pet project is, their next project is likely to be much better. Google is tough enough to take the criticisms and let their employees have the total learning experience. In the long run, this strategy's likely to produce some great stuff.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Encyclopaedia Britannica Versus Wikipedia, Versus Hyperlinks:

Months ago there was a lot of web excetement about a comparison between Encyclopaedia Britannica and Wikipedia. An outside organization asked experts to read some (unidentified) articles from each and count mistakes. E.B. was stung by the results of the study, but they took their time, and they put together a strong rebuttal. They argued, in various ways, that many of the mistakes attributed to them were not mistakes. I read the rebuttal carefully, and one thing really struck me that I want to share with you.

In many cases, E.B. argued that an item was not a mistake because of some material in a different article. "X" was not a sin of omission because they covered it THERE, "Y" was not a wrong implication because they plainly discussed implications of Y in this other volume, etc. Now the obvious point to make is that Wikipedia has hyperlinks in profusion, so that it's not very important to decide WHERE a piece of information goes. There'll usually be a link to and from it in that other article. E.B. can't have hyperlinks in its text version, nor could it drown readers in printed references to other articles (in comparison, hyperlinks are much tidier than explicit references).

Now here's a related point: the challenge that E.B. accepts, to place each piece of info in the correct article, is a very difficult challenge. I imagine there are a few experts at E.B. who spend much time agonizing over correct categorization, and doing it very well. But we, the great unwashed who read E.B., lack their expertise in categorizing, so often we will not know where they would know to look. This is a general problem with categorizing, that it's self-defeating to create a sophisticated set of categories that must be used by many other people who will never have time to learn the categorizing rules.

"Tagging", a technique in wide use on the web, illustrates what's wrong with formal categories. You might think that the people who run the photo web site Flickr would set up a few hundred categories, and then let you tag each photo for the category it belongs to. They might even use an expansion of the Dewey Decimal System for this purpose. But people will not know such category systems well enough, and refuse to use them out of frustration. Poeple will also come up with new exciting ideas that do not fit the existing categories. Flickr allows us to create our own "tags" and use them to categorize our pictures. The results are best described as chaos, but they tend to suit our immediate needs rather well. I have some experience with controlled categories, and I'd call the result of imposing them chaos as well!

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Would you (9) open an Email with this Subject?

Can I Trust you?
And poets worthy their inspiring god
We approved yours loan
off-colored pain-stricken
You are the consolation prze winner!
lightheadedness, or fainting may occur, especially when you missionary
Te Adoro {from "unknown sender", by the way}
Essential message. You require to read
mucus matchmaker

And would you open an email from:
Otto Bullock

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Brussel Sprouts are easy to cook:

Brussel Sprouts are easy to cook if you quarter them first. Cut off the bottoms if you wish, remove outer leaves or clean them any way you like, then cut them parallel to the stem into quarters. Now they will cook quickly, about five minutes in a small amount of boiling water. For example:

  • A dozen Brussel Sprouts, quartered.

  • One or two limes

  • One Tablespoon of any sort of Hoisin sauce (or faux Hoisin sauce, that's what I use)

Cook the sprouts, drain them, put them in a bowl and squeeze the lime juice over them. Then add about a tablespoon of the Hoisin sauce.

Monday, January 15, 2007

1234567, Social Security:

You've probably noticed that I care about computer security, so you'll unerstand why I'm annoyed at the federal Social Security Administration. I have a computer account with them, and they've been so kind as to allow me to protect it with a seven digit password. Seven digits is ridiculously easy to crack. Today, sixteen characters including upper and lower case, and punctuation, is considered reasonably secure. Seven digits is not even as long as the genuine social security number I'm trying to protect! What's the matter with socsec?

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Realism in Abstract Art (and Vice Versa):

In my distant youth, I was militantly in favor of all sorts of abstract art. I've come to my senses over time, but I still love the way that realistic art can be abstract and unreal, while abstract art can 6igve us unusual and realistic views of reality. Here's one of my favorite examples: Next time you're near one of Auguste Rodin's statues -- they ARE realistic, aren't they -- try putting your hands in the position of his statue's hands. You'll find it's impossible. Rodin gets great strength and emotion into the hands of his statues by putting them into horribly abstract positions that only seem realistic.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Henry Goldberg's Parents

We live near a Jo-Ann store. It's chock full of everything the doityourself crafter (for the sort of crafts usually associated with women) needs to buy. Needles, threads, bangles, cloth, decorating objects, etc. etc, etc. Recently I visited a Jo-Ann Super Store that had the same sort of everything only it was four times larger, and covered every possible topic in spectacular detail. Wandering around, I felt like a kid in a giant toy store. What's not to admire in a great big place like this?

I looked through the section full of light, modeled plastic foam, all sorts of useful shapes and sizes, and then I remembered Henry Goldberg's parents. Henry was one of my friends in elementary school, and sometimes I spent the day with him at his parent's store. It was a mom & pop operation in a busy Long Island town, and they sold this stuff. I loved going into the back room with Henry and making up games using the decorations and the plastic foam swords, balls, flats and what have you. His parents didn't sell fabrics, but they had small selections of almost everything else Jo-Ann's sells, even the seasonal decorations.

I hope Henry's parents retired happily about thirty years ago, because they are exactly the sort of people whose businesses the Jo-Ann and Michael stores destroyed. You may think it was real hard to buy this stuff before those big stores showed up in our suburbs, but the crafters who needed these items knew where to find them, and chances are many of them knew to buy from Henry's parents.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Knitting and general purpose computing:

One of my programming books argues that the oldest programming language is the stylized language that’s used to describe knitting patterns. Knitting patterns have repetitive loops, conditional statements, subroutines and functions with replaceable arguments, the very stuff of computing. You might even argue that a person knitting a pattern acts a lot like a computer executing a program. (Except that the computer acts without any artistry!)

This similarity might explain why there are so many books about knitting. When I’m in knitting stores (as I was today), I’m amazed at all the topics that knitting books cover. There are of course different techniques, like how to knit with ribbon wool. And other technical topics, like how to fix mistakes. But there are books on knitting for pets, knitting vintage socks, knitting mittens, knitting modern or artic lace, knitting for babies, knitting for kids, not to mention the sort of “hip” knitting books put out by the Stitch’n’Bitch Nation.

Just as there’s no end to the ways you can program a general purpose computer, there seems to be no end to the ways you can specialize the knitting process.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

My Mp3 player has no Pause Button ...

My new mp3 player has no Pause button, or maybe it has no Stop button. This omission is so interesting that the manufacturer addresses it in the player's online FAQ.
CD players can both stop and pause.
DVD players can both stop and pause.
Tape machines can usually both stop and pause.
Record players can stop (lift the needle off the record) and, pause, sort of (raise the cueing bar, you might be able to set the needle back down in the same place was later).

So why is there only one button now, that works for both stopping and pausing? The answer's pretty obvious: older audio players distinguish between these functions because of a technological tradeoff, not because we users want both functions. On a tape player, leaving the unit paused for quick resume is convenient, but leaving a tape in pause a long time uses electricity and can wear out the tape. On a CD or DVD player, the “pause” command supports a quick resume where you left off, consuming extra electricity and – maybe – wearing out the mechanical arm that positions the laser. The manufacturers recognize there's a tradeoff, and they make US decide whether to stop or pause, instead of making a manufacturing decision to support only one of the two alternatives.

On my mp3 player, there's always a quick startup, as long as the player's on (or even “mostly on”). So there's no tradeoff, and no need for two buttons. Instead, there's one button with the well-recognized play/pause icon, but it's actually a play/stop button.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Whitey Likes Plantains:

I buy approximately one plaintain a week. I let it turn black and soft, then I slice it thin, fry it gently in a little oil, and eat it with lime juice and maple syrup, a special treat.

Now here's what I've had to get used to: checkout ladies, with a Carribbean lilt in their voice, asking me, “What do you do with that?” The first couple of times I figured they'd never seen anyone buy a plantain before, but now I know better. THEY know how to cook a plantain, but they're really curious whether I do. I don't look like I know what to do with a plantain. (They usually smile approvingly when I give them my recipe.)

I'll be blogging less frequently for abut a week, please stand by ...

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Eye on the Goal:

For the rest of my life, I'll likely consume something the doctor prescribed for me to take daily. It comes in big plastic bottles, and when one's nearly empty I have to buy another one. Now would you believe it? I always feel that I can't wait to finish the current bottle. There's something "goal oriented" about trying to finish each bottle, even though, frankly, I'll never be finished.

Friday, January 05, 2007

The first Podcaster:

About two years ago, it was a great game on the Internet to ask: What is a blogger? It's not easy to say what a blogger is, because bloggers use rather general purpose computer software, and general-purpose software can be used in many different ways.

Similarly, it's hard to say what's a podcaster, since podcasting is a medium that can be used in dozens of different ways. Still, if you listen to typical podcasts, you'll note a few common profiles; one of the most common is the person who just sits down at a microphone and talks. Some podcasters plan their material very carefully. Or they may just talk off the top of their heads, they do little editing, and they'll toss their casual, unscripted-sounding audio onto the web for us to hear.

So who's the first podcaster? Who's the first person who produced audio sounding like that, week in and week? I'd say you've got to go back to 1948, when Jean Shepherd started his twenty-some years of late night talks on the radio. You can listen to a lot of his material to see if you agree with me, a lot is online at the Shep Archives. (Caution, this site might be NSFC, as in “not safe for copyright law”.)

If you were any sort of counterculture person in the late 40s or 50s, chances are you listened to Shep and then next morning when you could manage to wake up, you discussed him with your friends. In retrospect, as you'll hear if you listen to some of his material, he really sounded like a podcaster.

Enough for today! I'll save my reminiscences about Shep for another time.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Your own Personal Elevator:

I hope that each of you someday has the pleasure of having our own personal elevator. I'm talking about an elevator that's always there when you need to go from floor to floor, in some specific building. The easiest way to get your own Personal Elevator is to buy an expensive apartment in the sort of building where each apartment has its own elevator. But I got a taste of this luxury last December 31st, and I'd like to tell you about it.

I went to work on the 31st, worked to about eight p.m. in fact. There was almost no one else at the office, a scientist or two and a few security guards. I used one elevator a lot to go back and forth between the first and third floors, and that elevator was always ready for me. Let me tell you, it's a pleasure when you push that button and the door always opens at once.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Cod Liver Oil, Etc.:

There's a wonderful website called Medpundit. The doctor (a woman by the way) who runs it delves deep into the ills and outs of running her rather computerized office. She also eloquently probes the statistical weaknesses in "studies" that prove we should all take yet another drug for something else. Her main page displays a quote by Anton Chekhov: "When many cures are offered for a disease, it means the disease is not curable."

I think about this quote whenever I look at the vitamins and herbals in my favorite supermarket. There are nearly 100 running feet of shelf space stoked with a thousand concoctions, and clearly, according to Chekhov, their mere existence proves that most of them are useless.

But the vitamin/herbal business is very clever. They toss out so many items, aimed at so many of our deepest concerns, that for every person there's some item that will slither through our mental defenses. I used to be proud I had the sense to take just two pills a day (a multivitamin plus something prescribed by my doctor), but then, oh, this one looked like it wouldn't hurt, and that one might help, and currently I take six or seven morning pills daily.

Of all these, nothing fascinates me more than cod liver oil pills. A few of my classmates took cod liver oil when I was in elementary school. We knew who they were, their breath smelled horrible ALL morning. As an eight year old I swore I would never take that stuff, and I fought off my parent's attempts to get me to try it. But now I take a cod liver oil pill every day, just in case there's something to this "Omega 3" business. There's been a big technological change of course, both in marketing the darn things to me, and, best of all, in making them tasteless and odorless.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Wii Will Wear You Out:

Of all the observations I've heard about the new game machines, my wife's is my favorite: The preoccupation with these game devices suggests a sad decline in society. But out in the “real” world, people make an intriguing observation: the Nintendo Wii is good exercise. Parents are delighted to see their kids get up off the couch and swing a virtual tennis racket about, sashsay back and forth, work up a sweat, burn calories and build muscles. In fact, it seems that devices like the Wii may be the home exercise machines of the future. You're hearing it here first, unless I'm a little behind and it's already happening. Here's the essence:

There will be Wii programs that take you through exercise routines while you operate that motion controller. The Wii will sense whether you're moving corrrectly, and correct your motions to some extent. You'll be able to tell the Wii how fast to make you move, and you'll be able to set up long sequences of exercises to go through. The Wii be your personal trainer, even your Tai Chi Guru.

In a few years my orthopedist will diagnose some ill and give me a prescription for a set of exercises I can download to my Wii. (Or more likely, to the medical equivalent of a Wii that costs five times as much. Oy.)

The reign of the “couch potato” now comes to an end! Long live the “couch jumping bean!” On the other hand, Nintendo officially claims the Wii is NOT an exercise machine, at least for the moment. Click here more more on the opposing point of view.