Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Re-Engineering for Manufacture:

During my checkered career in the computer business, I’ve made some painful discoveries about how hardware has to be re-designed so that it can be manufactured. Engineers proudly produce a working device, and manufacturing screams that they cannot build it as designed. There may be a three to six month delay, unanticipated by everyone who can’t wait to make money from this new device, until it can be rebuilt to manufacturing’s specs, and actually work properly.

Here are a few of the good reasons for manufacturing to re-invent the wheel:

  • Manufacturing people cannot duplicate the engineer’s painstaking handcrafting. They need parts and tolerances to allow them to automate the building process, and hire cheap labor.

  • Manufacturing worries about federal regulations that limit the electronic interference each device can broadcast. They worry about UL regulations and tons of safety regulations.

  • Manufacturing worries about how many units will be built incorrectly, maybe even shipped and returned. They need a very low failure rate.

  • Manufacturing worries about lowering cost to increase profit, which gets important when building in quantity.
Even tenths of a cent count when you’re reducing manufacturing costs.

Now why isn’t software re-engineered for manufacturability? I think the answer’s simple: It’s too expensive to touch the software, it’ll break.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Swat Flies:

There are no houseflies in my home. Not a single one, as usual. But recently ... well, let me begin at the beginning.

I bought a flyswatter many years ago, when dozens of bees crawled through a crack into my office at work. It hangs on the wall now, untouched for months and years at a time. We recently had a six-day winter infestation of house flies. Not all at once, but forty or fifty a day, appearing at all times in twos and threes and fives. I took up my flyswatter, determined to kill them as fast as I could find them. I figured this would be like remembering how to ride a bicycle, but there were some surprises.

First, I should explain that I have a serious pedigree in the matter of catching flies. My great grandfather (he was German, so you might want to stop reading this blog item right now, I'm warning you) used to make little folded paper boats and wagons. Then he would sit still until a fly landed on his hands, and as it crawled around he'd catch it alive between his fingernails. (This is not as hard as it sounds when there are a lot of flies, I did it myself when a teenager.) He would swipe a little paste on the fly's wings and stick it to the bottom of one of his paper models (I've NOT done this myself, I promise!) and then enjoy watching the models move around the table as the flies lugged them here and there in their efforts to escape.

I really learned how to swat flies at my grandmother's farm. The house had a long outdoor veranda with an inexhaustable supply of flies. I and my cousins would swat away at them, running up totals in the hundreds before we got bored.

Nonetheless, in a few days in my own home, I learned new things about stalking flies:

  • They love warmth. They're not getting into the house via the bathrooms, they just collect there because the bathroom lights are always on.

  • They are easier to swat with a gentle stroke than a furious one. You'd think a fast stroke will hit them before they can react, but in fact a gentle stroke produces so little headwind that they don't react at all.

  • In an enclosed space, you can swat a fly in flight by waving the swatter rapidly back and forth. This motion creates a suction in the air that draws the nearby fly into the swatter.

  • And I'll also tell you things I already knew, in case you've got to face the little beasties yourselves:

    • They fly backwards as they take off. If you aim just in front of a sitting fly, you'll miss it.

    • It's terribly boring to wait for a fly to settle so you can aim at it, but with practice you can often knock them out of the air in flight.

    Thank goodness we don't have to deal with pack rats.

    Monday, February 26, 2007

    What's wrong with my marketing slogan?

    When Bill Gates was in Rumania, he had to listen to a speech explaining how pirated copies of Windows and other pirated software are turning the Rumanian economy around. Gates was polite, he did not remark on all this, despite Microsoft’s herculean efforts to force everyone to pay for Windows.

    Now here’s my idea. Microsoft should have an ad campaign like this: “Use our fine software if you can afford it. Otherwise, use Linux.” The point of my campaign is that Microsoft REALLY doesn’t want you to pirate Windows. (Windows XP is available in many countries for $1, I’ve heard.) So obviously they should steer us paupers to Linux instead.

    Somehow, I think I’ve just proved the converse. Microsoft hopes to keep pirated copies of their products to a minimum, but they’d much rather we use their product illegally, than join the Linux revolution.

    Sunday, February 25, 2007

    Unintended consequences:

    This is a pleasant story about unintended consquences. (Unlike, say, stories about well-intended laws gone wrong.) When the Baby Bells split away from the old AT&T, they set up their own labs similar to AT&T's Bell labs. It was called Bellcore. The Bellcore building near Morristown NJ housed about four hundred employees, and while preparing the building, Bellcore installed a massive TV switch. There was a TV camera in every office, and any employee could tune into the camera of any other employee who was willing to make his or her camera public. Bellcore regarded this as an experiment, and could hardly wait to see how the switch would be used. But they were thinking about distributed meetings of various kinds. Here are two of the uses that became very popular:

    (1) Some of the few employees who had windows pointed their cameras at their windows, allowing everyone with interior offices to watch what was happening outside.

    (2) Suppose I needed to talk to you, but you weren't in your office. I wanted to catch you the moment you came back. I would go to your office and point your camera at your office chair. Then, back at my room, I'd keep an eye on your empty office. The moment I saw motion there, I would contact you.

    Friday, February 23, 2007

    How to Tie a Knot with Music Player and a Seatbelt:

    Perhaps you feel knot-challenged, knowing nothing more than how to tie a shoelace or a tie. Or perhaps you belong to the half of humanity that never wears ties or shoelaces, and feel REALLY knot-challenged. Well here’s an easy knot you can learn to tie.

    Take your little music-player into the car with you. Sit down, fasten the seatbelt. (You need a three-point seatbelt for this knot, otherwise it may not work.) Relax. Attach the headphones and start listening to music, or to your favorite podcast. Drive somewhere. Whatever you’re listening to is really engrossing, isn’t it? Detach the seatbelt and get out of the car.

    OOPS! You’ve tied a knot. Your headphone cord is wrapped around the seatbelt and you can’t leave.

    I apologize if you're frustrated by the lack of detail in my instructions. I’m not quite sure how it works myself, but it definitely works more often than you’d like.

    Thursday, February 22, 2007

    UgliRipe Tomatoes versus The Bland Stuff:

    Some piece of the federal government recently ruled that UgliRipe tomatoes can be shipped out of Florida to other states, and I just might buy one. Previously it was illegal to ship them out of state because they failed to meet the standards of the Florida Tomato Committee. They are not almost perfectly round, but rather terribly misshapen. (But they are supposed to be tasty.) I wanted to complain briefly that I can see only one reason to regulate the shape of tomatoes: it makes the effective crop smaller and thus raises the price. I’d be happy to buy funny looking tomatoes period, just give me a wider selection!

    While preparing to write this blog entry, I found an interesting posting on topic by Ryan Redmond, here. You can tell Ryan’s focus is a little different, because his posting is titled “Flavor.” He explains that the Tomato committee manages consistency in terms of costs; production limits; marketing; distribution reach; shape, size and color of product. BUT NOT FLAVOR. The committee says flavor is too subjective, leaving Redmond to ask:
    What?! Flavor is not a factor?

    Since when did the production of food cease to be about flavor?

    And he’s got some interesting answers to his question, check him out.

    Wednesday, February 21, 2007

    Life is Difficult.

    Life is Difficult, even when you're good at it.

    Tuesday, February 20, 2007

    You can’t believe the Movies Anymore.

    We’ve always known that after movies are shot, they spend months in post production. Something’s happening then, and whatever it is, it’s not exactly natural. According to this article, movies today can be photoshopped as easily as stills. The article talks about modifying an actor’s performance, adding a tear, and placing a dead actor’s face over a double. As usual, my own fear is that we ordinary people will spend an awful lot to try to look like the photoshopped people in movies, but the article raises other interesting concerns, such as: Who deserves control over an actor’s acting?

    But before you get too excited about the way that post production obscures reality, bear this in mind: You’ve probably seen movie scenes that were shot backwards. That is, the actors all moved from the end of scene to its beginning, and then the film was played backwards to make it look like they were moving forwards. Some directors like this trick, it tends to show more tension in the actors’ bodies, for short dramatic takes. How much more unreal than that can a movie ever be?

    Monday, February 19, 2007

    Join the Lord of the Rings Online Stress Test:

    I got an email this weekend inviting me to "Join the Lord of the Rings Online Stress Test." Does that sound like spam to you? Well basically it isn't, but it's an email title that's wonderfully confusing. Unless you realize at once what it means. I respectfully declined this offer. The email came from Gamespot, and they want people to help them test the ability of their new Tolkienish MMORPG to handle large numbers of players. Thus: Stress test.

    Sunday, February 18, 2007

    A Rueful Vent:

    Today I'm going to make a classical use of my blog: I'm going to vent about an unsatisfactory experience with a vendor. But my goal is not to get you to complain with me, or to shop elsewhere. I'll probably buy again from this place myself, and I've plugged them before. I'm a victim of circumstances, and I wish they'd treated me a little more kindly.

    Every few months I order from Terroir Coffee. They make coffee that's expensive and exceedingly delicious. At the beginning of February, they announced something special, “Special Reserve El Injerto, from Huehuetenango, Guatema. I looked at their web page for this item. Eventually it will disappear but here it is (this is the version Google has CACHED). The fellows at Terroir think I'm a clueless newbie for believing I could buy this coffee for only $11.90, but if you look carefully at the link, you'll see that there's no price for the El Injerto. Nor does the page say “call for price.” Three coffees are offered on this page, and “11.90” appears just above and below the text for El Injerto. I've looked at a lot of coffee websites, and in my limited experience there's always a price. So I foolishly connected that $11.90 with the wrong coffee.

    In any case, I had to call Terroir to reserve this coffee because (when I called) the item was not quite yet on sale. The guy I talked to is sure he told me the price, and I'm sure he didn't, because if he had, my jaw would have dropped so far open that I would have had difficulty closing it. A few days my order the arrived, and I was astounded to see that I had bought 12 ounces of coffee for $49 (plus shipping). Wow!

    I knew at once that I could not return the coffee to them unopened. That would be unethical on my part, because I know Terroir sells fresh-roasted coffee, and by the time they got it back from me, they would not allow themselves to ship it to another customer. So I ground some of the beans and made myself a cup. It was delicious. In my own exprience, I can only compare Jamaican Blue, or Kona from the same coffeemeister (George Howell) in the past, to El Injerto, for sheer drinking pleasure.

    After enjoying my cup, I called to complain. I talked to a fellow who was sure he had taken my order, and equally sure he had told me the price. I explained to him that their web page about El Injerto is misleading, and ought to say something about price or the lack of it. (Almost two weeks later, I believe there has been no such change.) I asked him to think about whether there was anything Terroir could do to make me feel better about this situation. I did not ask him for a snap decision, but rather made sure he had my email address, and he agreed to write to me. And I waited.

    I'm still waiting. I haven't even gotten an “I'm terribly sorry, there's nothing we can do” email. Gee I wonder if his response got lost on the way. Email's not perfect...

    UPDATE: I received a very kind apology from Terroir, and at this point it looks like they've done more than enough to keep me a happy customer. I believe they are also going to change their website to make clear when a price is not posted. Right now I probably feel even better than I would have, if I'd never vented!

    Saturday, February 17, 2007

    My iron-clad rule of Blogs:

    Regarding any blog that you enjoy reading regularly: when the author has a baby, the tone and content of the blog will change so drastically that you will lose interest in it. Oh, I know of a couple of rare exceptions, perhaps as many as two.

    Friday, February 16, 2007

    Your Skul Essays R Gr8!

    There have been many recent stories (like this one in the New York Times) about teachers who are shocked to find that students use L33T to write essays in school. Everyone is shocked. I’ve found comments like these:
    • They’ll never get a job!

    • The dumbing down of civilization.

    • If they do this, the students must think it’s okay!

    Now I experienced the same problem when I was in ninth grade in 1955. I know there was no instant messaging in those days, and EliteSpeak hadn’t been invented, but you’ll see what I mean.

    Early in the fall we had an essay test in science class. (Yes! An essay test early in the year, in a SCIENCE course. But let’s not go there now.) When our teacher returned the essays, he had circled, in red, every place that any of us wrote “sed” instead of “but”, and “et” instead of “and.”

    “Now I know,” he said, “that most of you come here straight from Latin class. And that's your first experience at trying to think in another language. But in this class, please write in English.”

    We tried, and after that we did pretty well. We were embarrassed that we’d been using our Latin vocabulary without noticing. But that, I think, is the central issue. I’m sure that some of the students who write L33T can’t write any other way. But I suspect many of them, when they write, are concentrating on expressing every thought, not on how to write every letter. Kids these days spend a lot of time living in L33T, and it’s going to affect their motor skills.

    Wednesday, February 14, 2007

    How many answers does a yes/no question have?

    How many answers does a yes/no question have? I'm asking you because I had a painful experience with a web page that asked me if I wanted to cancel my changes and move on to the next page. (I had made a few edits and then changed my mind, clicked a button to go elsewhere.) I'd say there are two answers to that question: yes, and no. But what I got was a message box with three answers: Yes, No and Cancel. The choice of 'cancel' in this case was unfortunate. Here's what happened (I'm not making this up):
    Computer: Do you want to go to the next page and cancel your edits?
    Me: Cancel.
    (Now I was focused on what I planned to do next, so I didn't really notice what hitting 'cancel' meant. The message box disappeared, to be replaced by ... the identical message box. I had canceled the question without answering it, you know.
    Computer: Do you want to go to the next page and cancel your edits?
    Me: Cancel.
    The message box disappeared, to be replaced by ... the identical message box.
    Computer: Do you want to go to the next page and cancel your edits?
    Me: Cancel.
    The message box disappeared, to be replaced by ... this is getting boring ....
    Computer: Do you want to go to the next page and cancel your edits?
    Me, coming to my senses: YES!

    Tuesday, February 13, 2007

    Discrete Packaging Rules!

    I received a spam today from a company that "totally understands my problem" and promises that that the pills they want to send me will come in discrete packaging. I am so relieved. I suppose companies that don't use discrete packaging tend to mail out gigantic pill bottles that serve whole neighborhoods, and they expect us all to go to some central point to collect what's ours alone. Or maybe those other companies use continuous packaging, bottles that originate at the plant and ooze out across the landscape, growing ever larger as they extend.
    I know that continuous manufacturing is less expensive than discrete manufacturing (bread factories just HATE to bake loaf-ends), so I'm willing to pay a little more for discrete packages, regardless of what's in them.

    Monday, February 12, 2007

    I Can't Hear You!

    I use several different ear-things to listen to podcasts. One of the nice things about podcasts is that they don't require much hi-fi, so I get to try out various cheap inventions that go into, aim sound at, or cover my ears.

    Occasionally, I fail to hear something a person says to me because I'm listening to my player, but I always turn the player off and try to find out what I missed. I'm sorry that none of the ear pieces I have is called a banana. If it were, I'd always use it! Then, whenever somebody said something to me, I'd say, "I can't hear you, I have a banana in my ear!" (There IS a banana cell phone, however.)

    Saturday, February 10, 2007

    Thousands of Leaves:

    In a job interview, has anyone ever asked you this question: “When you look at a forest, what do you see?” This is an unsubtle attempt to determine whether you’ll claim that you see a forest, rather than a bunch of trees. I have a third answer for this question, which I’ve actually used: “I see thousands of leaves, and I see them all clearly.” My answer reflects pride in my ability to master a large amount of relevant detail in my software work. But remarkably, it also reflects one of the most exciting moments of my life, literally. Here’s what I mean:

    I started wearing glasses when I was nine. I had a traumatic experience with a local ophthalmologist, who ordered an incorrect prescription for me and ignored an awful lot of complaining before admitting his mistake. My parents then sent me to a friend of theirs, an optometrist, who tested me and prescribed my glasses for free. (My parents also got a break on the cost of the glasses, it was a great deal.) My glasses were never corrected to a full 20/20, I always had slightly blurry distance vision. The optometrist explained to me that fully correcting my eyes would make me cross-eyed and give me headaches, he was adopting the best compromise.

    When I went to graduate school, it was no longer feasible to go to that optometrist, so I picked a local ophthalmologist out of the yellow pages. (He turned out to have been Einstein’s eye doctor!) I explained to him how it was impossible to correct my eyes to 20/20. “Nonsense,” he said, “I’m going to give you 20/20 vision, and you’ll see things you never saw before.”

    And he did. My great memory was looking out the window of his office and clearly seeing the leaves on the trees, in distinct profusion. Wow, what a wonderful sight!

    Friday, February 09, 2007

    MSC Vista – What if nobody comes to the party?

    It’s generally acknowledged that Microsoft made an enormous effort -- and forced everyone who makes hardware related to playing movies to make similar efforts – so that Vista would contain awesome control over the user’s ability to copy content. This effort has cost MSC a lot of time and money. It will also cost us, in the form of a more expensive OS, more expensive graphics and audio, CPUs unable to realize their full power, and more expensive driver software.

    But what if nobody comes to the party? MSC’s worst nightmare ought to be that all the big content companies suddenly agree with a recent Bill Gates comment and decide to do away with digital rights management. That would leave Vista overpriced and overly twitchy to no point, and there’s no telling how bad the fallout might be for MSC.

    Can’t happen soon, right? Ummm, take a look at this: A report that EMI is thinking about selling all of its songs in unprotected MP3 format. (This is an A.P. article, I link to it where Slashdot did, in the Chicago Sun Times.) We like to call this a “crack in the wall.”

    Update: Maybe Yahoo doesn't want to come to the party either. Here's Dave Goldberg, head of Yahoo Music, wanting to get out of DRM.

    Thursday, February 08, 2007


    Since most of us deal with computers, you've probably come across the concept of the "root" directory. A disk drive may have many folders and files, but the folders are all stacked inside each other, except for one, the "root" that contains all the others. The word "root" suggests a structure with its base in the ground, and all the complexity flowing upward. These directory stacks can also be referred to as "trees," in which branches represent folders containing more folders (smaller and smaller branches) until you get all the way up to the leaves (files).

    But people have also imagined these structures growing down. In the early 1970's, I worked on a revolutionary computer operating system (a little TOO revolutionary, it never saw the light of day). The disk folder that contained all the other folders was not called the root, but rather, the "great directory in the sky." (By the way, that's a phrase that gets NO matches at all in a Google search.) And all the other folders and files branched downward from the sky. you see.

    It's interestng how I managed to remember that name, "great directory in the sky," all these years. What really comes to mind is not the name, but its "mangle." This revolutionary operating system was compiled by a "pre-compiler" that turned its elegant source code into another language that a computer of the time could understand. That second compiler understood symbols as long as six characters, no more.

    Many computer development systems support the ability to write symbols that are too long for other parts of their computer world to understand. These development systems "mangle" symbols, replacing the long ones by short enough symbols that are unique. For example, you might write a program with these symbols: forward_balance, forward_balance_estimated. If these symbols have to be represented by words only eight character long, they might be "mangled" into: forwbal1, forwbal2. And the mangle of "great_directory_in_the_sky" was the memorable "gdits," pronounced guhDITS.

    (You'll be amazed if you search the web for gdits. An don't miss Peter Grubbs' song, Ghost Dachsunds in the Sky, on lyrics on this page.)

    Wednesday, February 07, 2007

    Another way to recover, when you forget a name:

    I hadn't seen a coworker for a few months, and I forgot his name. (Please be kind, his last name has lots and lots of consonants in it.) The next time I saw him, I asked him for his work phone number. Then I looked that number up in the company directory, and now I've got his name again, without admitting my failure to anyone except: you.

    Tuesday, February 06, 2007

    "Spin" the Crash:

    Microsoft has been very touchy about Windows program "crashes" since at least Windows 95. They've gradually prettified the appearance of any crashed program, to the extent that when some sweet application dies and takes all your work down with it, Windows almost sems to know what it's doing. The "Marketing spin" on crashes in Windows XP is a screen that advises you the program has inadvertently had to go to Australia (or something like that), along with an offer to report the problem over the web, which you can accept or refuse.

    Now I'm biased, but personally, I hate this screen. My hatred might have a little to do with the fact that the program Microsoft is offering to send a report about is usually a little something I've written myself. I know it's not quite finished yet, but Windows insists on treating it like it's out of Beta. I'm afraid my bias prevented me from seeing the obvious, but I see it now, and I'm going to share it with you.

    I think that Windows performs a great service when they offer to "send a report" about a program that crashed. Because they are putting us in charge. Whether we say yes or no, we're doing the equivalent of the Roman Emperor's "thumbs up" or "thumbs down." It gives us a shred of a glimmer that we're in control, even as our precious data sinks to the bottom of the chip.

    Monday, February 05, 2007

    The Big Wrapple:

    New York City hands out 1.5 million free condoms a month, so it's about time, according to this story, that the local government has decided to sell their own brand. Gee, I hope they think of a good name for NYC condoms!

    Sunday, February 04, 2007

    The Misspelled NName:

    Do you have a name that's easily misspelled? I do, and some companies insist that my business email address must include my (hard to spell) last name. I know that people will spell it wrong, and then I'll be asked why I didn't respond to questions, missed a meeting, or failed to write some document. But for many years I've solved this problem, for the most common wrong spelling at least.

    Most email systems support “aliases,” extra names that should be directed to the same email account. So if your email administrator takes pity on you, and your name is Suzi, and your last name is Q, you should be able to get email addressed to Suziq, Suzieq, Suzyq, Soosieq and so on. Don't forget this little trick! Assuming you WANT to get your mail that is, thousands don't, anymore.

    Saturday, February 03, 2007

    Ninety-Ninth Computer (Jagger/Richards/Robison) , a Parody:

    This ditty is rather vaguely inspired by the Windows Vista Operating System.

    You're the kind of person who stays at home, never leaves your bailiwick
    You never see a crowd, you're busy chatting up a virtual chick
    Well, it seems to me that you have seen too little in your years
    And though you've tried you just can't hide your eyes are edged with tears

    You better stop, look around
    Here it comes, here it comes, here it comes, here it comes
    Here comes your ninety-ninth computer

    When you were a child you were treated kind
    But you were never brought up right
    You were always spoiled with peripherals but still you cried all night
    Your mother who neglected you owes the RIAA some fees
    And your father's still perfecting ways to copy DVD's

    You better stop, look around
    Here it comes, here it comes, here it comes, here it comes
    Here comes your ninety-ninth computer
    Oh, who's to blame, the whole world's insane
    Well, nothing I do don't seem to work
    It only seems to make the blue screens worse. Oh, please

    You were still in school when you met that geek who really messed your mind
    And after that you turned your back on treating people kind
    On our first chat I tried so hard to rearrange your mind
    But after awhile I realized you were disarranging mine

    You better stop, look around
    Here it comes, here it comes, here it comes, here it comes
    Here comes your ninety-ninth computer
    Oh, who's to blame, the whole world's insane
    Well, nothing I do don't seem to work
    It only seems to make the blue screens worse. Oh, please

    When you were a child you were treated kind
    But you were never brought up right
    You always had your hands on a keyboard, still you cried all night
    Your mother who neglected you owes the RIAA some fees
    And your father's still perfecting ways to copy DVD's

    You better stop, look around
    Here it comes, here comes your ninety-ninth computer ...

    Thursday, February 01, 2007

    Dakota Fanning and (I think) Mary Pickford:

    As you can see in this story, the new movie Hounddog is getting some serious criticism because of a rape scene. The girl in the scene, Dakota Fanning, is 12, and she's ready to tell anyone who will listen that she was Acting, not being abused. (The scene is in fact not graphic, according to the above story.)

    Now let's go back about a hundred years, to less "PC" days, and to one of the first films Mary Pickford made. (I saw the scene I'm going to talk about, but I can't find references to this story on the web; sorry.) Mary Pickford proved she was an actress in an attempted rape scene. She was playing a teenage girl who has run away from the villain, but he's trying to catch her and overpower her. She's just locked herself in a tiny building, and the guy is trying to beat the door down and get in. When this scene was filmed, Mary Pickford started to scream as the hooligan beat on the door. Her terror was so realistic that one crew member threw up.

    And that was a scene in a silent film! She was asked to tone it down, since the audience wouldn't hear her anyway, but she refused. She insisted, "I'm Acting. It makes a big difference to the scene, to be realistic."
    You can judge for yourselves whether acting in a rape scene ruined Mary Pickford's life (or anyone else's). There's lots of info about her on the web. I wonder if those who ignore history are destined to get dumber and dumber.