Tuesday, May 29, 2007

I'm going to take a break, see you about July 15.

I'm going to take a break. I expect to have something interesting to post around mid-July. Enjoy the spring! (Or whatever season, wherever you are.)

Sunday, May 27, 2007

I'm losing my taste for whimsy:

There's more than a little whimsy in this blog. All my life I've been a voracious consumer of whimsy. But recently I've been losing my taste for it. And not because I'm getting older! I'm really sorry about this loss of interest, because I've stopped enjoying several podcasts that fed my taste for the whimsical. Here's what happened:

I've been trying to write some fiction. Being rather bad at it, I've also been reading books on how to write fiction. These books stress, among other things, the importance of understanding WHY you are writing something. What's your purpose? What's your goal? What are you trying to say? Why are you saying it like that? Does the reader have a chance of understanding the answers to these questions? These questions are a lot tougher for the fiction writer than for non-fiction, I think. In non-fiction it's routine to answer these questions loudly, clearly, and repetitively.

I didn't take these concerns seriously when I first read about them. But I was dutiful. Off and on I would ask myself, Why am I writing this book? What am I trying to say? After four long months, I got the answers to these questions. The effect, on me and my writing, was astonishing. So now I really believe that a writer ought to know the answers, or at least some good answers, to these questions.

So now -- it's inevitable -- I ask the same questions of every fiction I read or hear. If I can't discern the answers, I get really turned off. Whimsy fares badly in this respect. You might say (and you would be wrong!) that the great goal of whimsy is not to be about anything. Well a lot of whimsy seems that way, and that's not good enough for me any more.

I'll leave you wiith a counter example of sorts. I attended a lecture by Eugene Ionesco, playwright of many savagely whimsical plays. During the Q&A, he was asked to explain the meaning of La Le├žon, one of his typically weird creations. He refused, saying (in french, I'm paraphrasing) "When I wrote that play, I tried to say something as well as I possibly could. I could not say that as well by trying to explain it." So there's one example of the creator insisting that his whimsy had meaning. When it doesn't, when it's just there for the sake of silliness, it's bread without salt; pancakes without maple syrup; a canary without a mine; a tractor without a woman; a sim without an ile; a smile without a face, a whimsy without me reading it.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Two-way communications, the low-tech way:

A company called Tiger News delivers two newspapers to our home every morning. They are a reliable service, able to meet our flexible requirements when we're away from home. We like them, although they are hard to communicate with. They have a phone number that reaches an answering machine. When the machine is “on” it rings about seven times before picking up, long enough to weed out a few over-eager callers. But the machine is only on a few hours each morning after delivery time. Mostly, when you call, it rings twenty times and then says “the machine is off” and hangs up. Now I understand this rather poor method of communication. Newspaper delivery is a low-overhead business, and anything Tiger News wants to do to keep their costs down is probably okay with me.

But this morning I really wanted to leave a message, because they delivered only one paper, not two. I called, and the phone rang and rang. “Aha,” I said to myself, they've turned their machine off, because they are expecting to get hundreds of calls about the missing paper. That paper must have come to them too late to deliver on time; I'll just wait. And an hour later, the other paper turned up. So I consider that their answering machine managed to have a useful dialog with me, even though it really didn't say anything.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Headlights Off:

If you see an empty car parked with its headlights on, chances are the car will be locked. This is not an applcation of Murphy's Law, but rather an aspect of human kindness. If the car had not been locked, someone, seeing the car before you did, would have reached in and turned the lights off.

I was thinking of this recently, when I returned to my totally unlocked car to find I'd left the headlights on. Everybody, where were you?

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Now THAT's a flaky Pie Crust!

Many years ago my wife learned to bake superb pie crusts. She went through a difficult training phase, in which I sampled each pie to determine whether it was as flaky as my mother's pie crusts. Finally I announced my satisfaction; surely this last pie crust was as deliciously flaky as any of my mother's.

A few weeks later we ate at my parents' home, and my mother served a pie. My wife couldn't help noticing that my mother made crusts in an entirely different way - mom's were grainy, not the slightest bit flaky at all. It's a wonder I have any credibility left. When I think of all those delicious pies my wife baked, I can't believe I deserved any of them.

Friday, May 18, 2007

In the Ethnic Aisle:

In order to shop efficiently, you've got to learn how your giant supermarket organizes its stock. For instance, most supers have an “Ethic” aisle, and of course they all put different foods there. Now it seems to me that every supermarket I've ever shopped in gets one food wrong: Maple syrup belongs in the Ethnic aisle.

If you really appreciate this food; if you've ever wandered through that region in the Northeast where they sell it by the gallon; then you ought to know what I mean. I'm just saying.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Bouncing Venetian Blinds:

When you walk, does your head stay perfectly level with the ground? Not likely. So your eyes must be bobbing up and down. But the view you see before you is stable. Pretty clever brains, eh? I had the unsettling experience of walking towards a large window covered with open Venetian blinds. From a distance, the outdoor view through the blinds bobbed up and down alarmingly at each step, giving me an urge to walk more gently. At some point I got close enough and the outside view stabilized. Instead the blinds seemed to bounce up and down.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Salvidore Dali, The Youngest Child Prodigy ever:

BoingBoing has a reference today to a video clip of Salvidor Dali on the old TV show, What's My Line. Dali was a great self-promoter, and he was wonderful to watch in those days. His rather primitive grasp of English hardly slowed him down. I saw an interview of him on TV (with Mike Douglas perhaps?) in which the interviewer noted that Dali was, like many great artists, a child prodigy. He mentioned the ages at which a few greats like Mozart had first showed their talent, and then asked Dali, “As a child prodigy, how old were you when you showed signs of greatness?” Dali's response was the most awesome example of “thinking outside the box” that I've ever heard. Here's what he said: “Before Born.”

The essence of consulting:

A friend, Bernie Riskin, once described the essence of being a software consultant.
You go to a new company.
They hand you: a dead rat.
Then they say, "It's almost finished."

In the past, when I started a new consulting job, my wife would ask me, "Did they give you a dead rat?"

Monday, May 14, 2007

Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony and my Dad:

Beethoven’s third symphony, the Eroica, used to be my favorite Beethoven symphony. It was my favorite piece of music when I was about twelve. But I’ve rarely listened to it since my dad died, twenty-four years ago.

When I was young my father sometimes went away from home on business trips. He might be away one or two nights. We missed him. I missed him, my brother missed him, and we both knew that our mom especially missed him. One time he was on his way home from an overnight trip. He was coming in to LaGuardia by plane, and then he would somehow get to the Long Island Railroad, and take a taxi for the last short leg of his trip, from Lynbrook RR station to home. We didn’t know if his plane was on time or where exactly he was. There were no cell phones, and no inexpensive way to check flight times. Distance phone calls were expensive, my father would economize by not calling, he would just come home.

We knew he was on his way, and we worried our mother asking when he would arrive. Of course she had no idea. So I said, “I’ll play Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, maybe he’ll be home before it ends.” I had borrowed a recording of this symphony from the public library, a great fat album of about eight fragile 78 records. I played almost the whole symphony. The last movement is a wondrous set of variations, culminating in the great “augmentation,” where the theme is played, very grandly, at half speed. Dad walked into the house during the augmentation, the climax of the symphony.

About eight months later, dad was coming home from an overnight trip again, and we had no idea when he would arrive. I wanted him to be home soon, so I put on my new 33 1/3rd recording of Beethoven’s Eroica. Dad walked into the house during the augmentation, again!

I still have that fine recording of the Eroica, I could play it any time I want, but, well, you know …

Sunday, May 13, 2007

When to use the Bathroom:

You're in a hurry. To the mall, to an appointment, to visit relatives or friends; you're running late. So the great question raises its head: Shall I use the bathroom before the trip or after I get there?

I used to think that this was an interesting question, open to debate regarding such issues as bathroom quality, politeness in using the facilities elsewhere, etc. But today I got the ironclad answer to this question, at least for all trips involving a car: Use the bathroom BEFORE you get the flat tire.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

What if the word "Lottery" signified Spam?

I've gotten a lot of spam about winning lotteries. I bet you have too. Today I wondered why ANY emails with the word "lottery" sneak through spam filters. Isn't "lottery" a near certain tipoff that the email is spam?

So I imagined myself a programmer at a company that writes email spam filters. I want to write a rule to say that any email with the word "lottery" will go into the spam box, not the inbox. Now what will happen if I filter out an email about somebody ACTUALLY, TRULY winning a lottery, such that the recipient never finds out until it's too late, and never collects million$ of dollar$. I'll be in hiding for the rest of my life, that's what. I'd rather be Salman Rushdie than write a spam "lottery" filter.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Sugar: Regular, Bland and Low Sodium.

Merwick, the rehabilitation center of Princeton Hospital, serves sugar in little packets. Some of these are regular, but some of the sugar packets say “bland” or “low sodium” on them. Please let me explain:

For convenience in serving meals, the standard condiments come in sets of four attached packets. The regular packet set is: sugar, sugar, pepper, salt. But for some patients there are bland sets: sugar, sugar, sugar, salt. The word BLAND appears on each of the four packets, you can't miss it if you're a harried nurse's aid handing out meals. There are also packet sets of sugar, sugar, sugar, pepper. These are all labeled LOW SODIUM, of course.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Intellectual Arrogance:

Intellectual Arrogance is the sin of looking down -- way down -- on those less intelligent than yourself. I can think of few sins that so quickly visit punishment on those who practice it. Being intellectually arrogant is akin to locking yourself in a cage. My extended family really believed in Intellectual Arrogance and raised me to be a slavish adherent. I was violently cured when I was eighteen, and I've enjoyed life a lot more ever since. Please let me tell you about it.

I had my first job as a camp counselor, the summer I was eighteen. It was a large, well-run camp. Our unit, one of eight, had sixteen bunks, each with eight to ten campers and two counselors. Each dozen counselors had a counselor-counselor who monitored our work and offered advice. There were nearly a hundred counselors my age at this camp, so even if I was choosy, I was going to have lots of friends. Except that I didn't, because none of them was smart enough for me. I could be civil, but it was hard not to look down on them.

For about a week I enjoyed the feeling that I was the smart one in a sea of dummies. For the next three weeks I was miserable. But having plenty of undisturbed time to observe everyone else, I started to notice that most people have strikingly fine qualities. There are so many incredibly different ways that people can be good at something, or simply very worthwhile, or very enjoyable, and being clever or intellectually quick is just one of the many. I unlocked my cage and started enjoying the people around me.

The rest of the summer was fun.

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Slippery Slope of First Amendment Rights:

Although our constitution says Congress shall make “no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” the courts quickly found commonsense exceptions, suggesting that it must be okay to pile up the exceptions ad libitum, forever, for whatever reason. (“Fire!” she said in the crowded theater.) I regard these exceptions as a terrible slippery slope; they inure us to the principle, which is to keep speech legally free. (Many, many exceptions have been loaded upon us recently, many in the name of stopping "terrorism.") We have an astounding free-speech war being waged on the web right now, and the first sad thing about it is that some lawyers will have to volunteer their skills for thousands of hours to take this case all the way to the Supreme Court, where it could go either way. The case of course, is the right of web sites that publish a sixteen digit number to be subject to criminal and civil prosecution according to the Digital Milleniuim Copyright Act, in order to protect the profits of a few large entertainment companies. Congress should have known better than to pass a law that so obviously, so clearly, conflicted with free speech rights, but so many laws have done that already, what was one more?

We now know that the DMCA allows movie producers to OWN integers and prevent anyone from mentioning them. How silly is this? Well that law protects anyone who creates and encrypts a work of art. Go to Ed Felton’s Website, Freedom to Tinker, where he tells you how to take ownership of an integer and give it to your mother on mother’s day. All you have to do is encrypt a little Haiku, and the DMCA then protects the code you used as an encryption. Felton suggests that you encrypt lots of numbers, so let’s take over ownership of the natural numbers!

Now frankly, I think it’s important to own some of the smaller, more useful numbers. Here’s love poem I wrote to my wonderful wife. I encrypted it with the number ZERO, and now it looks like this:


Now I’ll admit that’s poor encryption, but the DMCA protects both good and bad coding; it even protected the atrocious and easily hacked encoding that SONY used on its CDs last year.

I’d like to leave you with one last, sensible point of view: When the 16 digit number that the MPAA wants to block appears on thousands of protesting web sites, it is protected by another aspect of the first amendment, and I hope the Supreme Court agrees with me. The US court of appeals has already recognized that utilizing the DMCA raises hard-to-call First Amendment issues, but this one is a doozy: The appearance of this code on many protesting websites has all the appearance of a movement, and is clearly protected “Political Speech”.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Would you (11) open an Email with this Subject?

Would you open an Email with this Subject?
  • Some momentum news?
  • Is your arm readjusting?
  • Sounds boring doesn't it?
  • dirt of our dank
  • As typescript go wattle

And would you open an email from:
  • raunchiest r. educator?
  • Peck U. Strangulation?
  • Anus Deshayes?

Friday, May 04, 2007

Full Motion Video:

I'm a great fan of this podcast: The Daily Giz Wiz. Dick DeBartolo and Leo LaPorte schmooze and are often hilarious. (They once deadpanned a long, improvised conversation about how the show is entirely scripted in advance.) I do not expect to buy most of the gadgets they describe, but this one is special for me: the Roadmaster Rear Deck Scrolling Digital Message System (Giz Wiz Show 271). This gadget enables you to post messages on your car's rear window for the driver behind you to read. I've long wanted a device like this, at least so I could post "Don't Tailgate," or "Gee, I'm Sorry!" Best of all, I imagined the first joke that's specific to this new medium. I expected Dick to read my joke on a podcast, but -- so far -- no luck. Here's my joke message:

My Other Car Has Full Motion Video.

Update: Dick DeBartolo read my letter on episode 305 of the Daily Giz Wiz. And it sounds like Leo Laporte didn't get the joke.)

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Beautiful Popcorn Flower

Spring is really beautiful, flowers and flowering trees everywhere. We have new grass in the front of our front yard: sparse, elegant three-inch bright green blades. Among them are little bursts of white that look lovely from our windows. These pretty white blooms will last awhile, because they are packing popcorn that our garbage man strewed on our lawn during the last pickup.

These white "flowers" don't look quite as pretty closeup, but from thirty feet away, they're better than white crocuses.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

How would you like to look at the religious symbols that the VA approves for gravestones?

How would you like to take a look at the religious symbols that the VA approves for headstones and grave markers? Doesn't sound too appealing, does it? I did recently, and I think it's a remarkable thing to experience. It won't take you long, there are 39 at the moment. Please, try it out. Click here.