Tuesday, July 31, 2007

How dead is the VCR?

I love the user interface that most VCRs present to me. They make it intuitively obvious to see a movie, to see where I am in a movie, to fast forward, to run backward, to jump back a short distance to catch a spoken word thatI missed. Someday there will be DVD players that present an equally simple user interface, instead of falling all over themselves to make you aware of the strengths, and the non-movie-like differences in the way video is recorded on them. But meanwhile, if I have a choice, I'll rent the tape, not the DVD.

Oh, you say the tape will be half worn out? Well the rental DVD, unlike the DVDs we actually own, will be full of disfiguring scratches that prevent parts of it from playing at all, so let's not go there, okay?

In preparation for the new Harry Potter movie, we've been seeing the previous ones. ON VCR so far! We returned tape two a little late, and I had an inspiration. Our local video rental place is getting rid of its tapes by selling them for little more than a five day rental plus a late fee. The first three Harry Potter movies were in stock, ON TAPE, and I bought them together, a sweet package deal, with a fine discount for having been so foolish as to rent the first two. So now we have them.

And now I know how dead the VCR format is. The Harry Potter DVDs are hot items. No DVDs were in stock for each of the H.P. movies I wanted. It makes sense that the VCR versions of these movies should be hot right now, much more valuable to the rental place as rentals, than as sales.

If anybody wanted to rent them, that is.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Why don't I consolidate my most common urls?

My web "home" page is simply a long list of URLs I mght want to visit. These are grouped by category, such as all programming pages of interest, all blogging pages, etc. My home page has over three hundred items, and I often have to search it.

At any given time, I use about a dozen of the links, but the particular dozen changes over time. It's easy to scroll through my home page to find the items I'm currently using, they are all a different color to show recent access. But why don't I take the few current ones and copy them to the very top of my page?

It would be very efficient to keep my most common webstes at the top of the page, but I don't. And I think the reason is, that I'm doing something else that's pretty efficient for me, and efficient for a lot of other people as well: I have a spatial memory for where my favorite web pages are, on this long list. I can usually find any specific one quickly. If I kept moving common items to the top of the list, I would never develop any feeling for where they are in the overall page. This spatial memory of where my favorites are is important to me.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Luckiest Reader of the Deathly Hallows:

My wife is, in a special way, the luckiest Harry Potter Reader in the world. She finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and thus joined the myriads of readers who know that -- as much as they've enjoyed the books -- and as much as they can reread them for pleasure -- they will never ever again read one single original word of fiction about Harry Potter and his world, ever again, by J. K. Rowling.

Later, my wife settled down for a good phone call with her daughter, who's a similar case. Somewhere in this discussion, our daughter had a grand insight, and exclaimed, "But you didn't read the epilogue!" They hung up to give my wife a chance to check the book out and, sure enough: she is the ONE among all those bereft H.P. fans to discover that: YES!! She had five more delicious page to read, it's not over! So she read the epilogue.

This post contains no spoilers, for the simple reason that I'm only up to page 450.

Friday, July 27, 2007

I Meme of Jreedy:

Huh. My first tag meme. Luckily, it's a pretty simple one. Tagger, thanks!

The Rules:
  • Each player lists 8 facts about themselves.
  • The rules of the game appear before the facts do.
  • The player ends by tagging 8 people, which means listing their names and then going to their blogs to tell them that they’ve been tagged, then going back and commenting on their lists.

The Facts:
1. I don't reliably connect faces and names. I'm very good at remembering voices, though.

2. One of my competitive chess games was published in the 1957 December Chess Review. (I won.)

3. I can get lost, particularly because I always have to double-check right/left, East/West.

4. I don't much like this sort of Meme, for the simple reason that I think it's a gross distortion of the meaning of the word Meme. See a decent definition of this sophisticated concept here.

5. My personal haven is the messiest room in the house – try and stop me.

6. I'm so lazy about doing this meme (see 4 above), that I've just copied my tagger as much as possible.

7. My first girlfriend's father played timpani, and her father composed music for a TV series. His hearing was excellent. We had to be very quiet at her house, when he was composing.

8. I'm pretty good about needles. Needling, too.

I'm not going to tag anyone. I looked at my blogroll, and it's noteworthy that I link to people I would never dream of meme-tagging. In any case, there aren't enough people in the world to tag forever, if everyone tags eight more people; I'm just speeding up the endgame a little. (I did think about tagging eight random myspace accounts, though.)

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Do I need to improve my swimming technique?

I swim several times a week in the lap pool at my health club. I started slowly, but now I can easily do laps for thirty minutes, and that's excellent aerobic exercise, I believe. The only problem is that my swimming technique is terrible. Many other lap swimmers can breaststroke faster than my crawl, thay can backstroke faster than my sidestroke. All my strokes look wrong, and I've forgotten how the breaststoke and the trudgeon work. If I take some classes and improve my technique, I shall feel prouder about my swimming, and I will also be able to swim more laps, with less effort, in my allotted thirty minutes.

But would that be a good thing?

My goal is to exercise. And at my age, I'm unlikely ever to need to rescue another swimmer, or swim a mile to save myself. Improving my swimming technique might actually mean burning fewer calories in thirty minutes of pool time. Why don't I leave bad enough alone?

There's something about men's competitiveness going on here. I suspect it's hopeless. In fact I have to admit that I've been improving my technique on my own, and I can't wait to have time to get some decent instruction. If that means burning fewer calories in thirty minutes? I don't care!

Whether to Solve a Problem:

I'm a "problem solver" person. I'm aways proud when I discover a problem before other people do, I feel a compulsion to try to solve problems, and I take great pride when I succeed. One of the best managers I ever worked for taught me to try to control my problem solving urges. He made me realize that I didn't own every problem I discovered, and that I needed to decide what to solve and what to ignore.

Life is full of problems, so I often think about this manager's advice. I've been thinking about it a lot, recently. Here's why:

I joined the Critters website to find a few dedicated readers who would read and critique my unpublished novel. I feel that every person who volunteers to give me a read is precious to me. I have not turned down a "request to read" yet.
Now generally, here's how it works. A "Critter" volunteers, so you send him a doc file of the book (whatever format the reader prefers) and they read it, then they comment. One of the "Critters" who responded to my request threw me an amazing challenge about format: he wants to read the entire book on his iPod, so could I cut the book up into separate 4,000 byte pieces, suitable for a screen with about a 30 character width?

The phrase "go to hell" comes to mind here, but I said, oh, hey, a problem, what can I do? I'm sympathetic to this person's request anyway, because I read books on my PDA.

By now I've formatted 144 chunks of the book (about half) for this person. I've been automating the process, which involves several steps, since I have to add paragraph separators, simplify the character set, enforce 30 character margins, and do the file splitting. It's been enough work that my old manager's advice about problem solving has been ricocheting through my brain.

But I'm happy now, I'm starting to get comments back from this fellow, and they've been excellent, worth the effort.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Lazy, and suffering for it:

The author Walter R. Brooks is responsible for one of my favorite observations: that lazy people work harder. This observation may not always be true, but let me tell you, once you're aware of it, you always think about it when it is. I recently hauled all of my recyclable garbage, cans, bottles and piles of newspapers, out to the verge on the wrong day for pickup. I realized my mistake almost at once, they were going to sit there for six days unless I lugged them all back into my garage.

In the good old days I would just have left them there. The “good old days” in this case refers to the days before our local government put a beautiful strip of grass, such as we have never had before, all along the verge on our street. I'm proud of my new grass, and if I just left my garbage cans on it for six days, some of that grass would likely die. But I was DARNED if I was going to haul the heavy cans back to the garage right now, and haul them back to the verge six days later.

So each and every morning, I went out and carefully moved those heavy cans to new spots, giving the grass hidden under the cans a well-deserved rest. Those cans never sat too long on any precious blade of grass, and six days later my garbage was picked up.

Yes, I was lazy! And yes, I paid for it.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Another user manual written by the lawyers:

I've often joked that user manuals are written by lawyers. They are full of wondrous wisdom such as "Do not place your head in the oven while it is hot." You know what I mean. Well, I just bought a pair of swim goggles, and here we go again! This is an exact quote from the instructions:

This product is intended for use during swimming. Do not sue the product for any other purpose.
Sigh ...

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Nothing to Hide:

Daniel J. Solove has published an interesting paper on the web called 'I've Got Nothing to Hide' and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy. Taking a scholarly approach, establishes a rather formal basis for the idea of what it means to “have something to hide.” We're all familiar with situations where a politician excuses abuses of privacy by, say, the FBI or NSA, saying “I've got nothing to hide, and neither do you, unless you're a criminal.” Solove argues that such people are in fact unfairly defining what it means to keep information private, and he develops many scenarios in which an entirely upright person might suffer severely at the hands of a government that is misusing data he would prefer to hide. One of his most memorable ideas is the Kafka argument, that citizens suffer when governments act upon private data they have about us – whether accurate or not – and we have no access to their deliberations or decisions.

If someone ever tells me that he has “nothing to hide,” I plan to ask him for his credit card numbers, his social security number, his email login and password, and how much money he possesses and earns. I'm sure he'll have nothing to hide. But while reading the Solove article, a simple generalization occurred to me, and I think it's important in this discussion:

I have nothing to hide from my faceless federal government. I have nothing to hide from any big company. But I do have much to hide from almost any PERSON I can think of. Show me a human being who works for the government, or for some credit card company, who might have access to all my financial records, and I greatly do not want that person to misuse my data to pay off his or her own debts. I have nothing to hide as long as human beings are not involved.

But we must all realize that, today, people are involved. That's especially true with regard to data collected by our government agencies, which have terrible track records when it comes to securing data bases. We all have something to hide, because otherwise, real people will have too much access to us.

Friday, July 20, 2007

We're living in the Descriptive Century:

Every century until the 21st has been a prescriptive century, that is, a century in which people talked and wrote about how we should behave, rather than how we do behave. The revolution started, I think, with the novel, which accepted society's norms while showing how people tiptoed outside them. The revolution continued in the 19th century with photography. Real pictures of our Civil War battlefields and victims began to force us to discuss, to mention, to accept, more of the true face of humanity. The revolution continued in the 20th century, and every big step has caused a furor; this is, after all, a revolution. The Kinsey Report forced us to begin to look at homosexuality, and sex out of wedlock, in more realistic ways; although in retrospect, the Kinsey report appears to have been more prescriptive than it claimed to be.

Today, one of the great signs of the turning tide is the tendency of our youth, to put what we oldsters call incriminating evidence on their websites. Over and over we counsel people NOT to put anything on the web that might ever keep them from getting a job. We warn them: that stuff will be online forever! But they don't care, because they sense that they are living in the Descriptive Century.

Web searches, frank blogs, sophisticated statistical analyses applied to the web, frank social sites, chat groups for Nazis, hackers and terrorists: they're all leading us in one direction, to the time when we will have to accept the way people ARE, because the evidence is all around us, rather than how we would like them to be.

I'm certain I'm right about all this, but I doubt it's a good thing. Until recently, most of us have hemmed in our aspirations with a desire to measure up to many standards of behavior. In the Descriptive Century, those standards will lose their force to reality. Some day, religions and systems of ethics will become strong enough to enforce standards of desirable conduct again. But before that happens, there might be decades of what we oldsters will call immoral lawlessness.

Have fun, everybody!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Please be Kind. (??)

I've joined a web site, Critters, that helps writers of Fantasy, Horror and Sci Fi to improve their writing. Writers submit short stories or book excerpts, and other writers, or people who just like to critique, point out everything imaginably wrong with the writing. The site is well thought out, and partly automated in good ways. It has an excellent policy about keeping the writings “secret” within the website, so that submitted items do not escape to the wild. They even have procedures for critiquing entire books. And the quality of criticism can be extremely high.

I'm facsinated by their diplomacy policy. (This policy is public at the site, here's a link to it.) They require all critiques to be couched in polite language, as nonthreatening as possible. And they enforce this policy, it's easy for you to flag anyone who sends you undiplomatic comments. They clearly do not want critiques to say something like this: Who ever told you that you could write? Your story is full of misused words, you'll never learn how to manage English. And you call that a story? Your characters are a bunch of idiots, just like you, I suspect. And so on...

Now I've worked in commercial environments where I've had to bear the brunt of incredibly rough criticism. And I've seen people go off the deep end when their work is objectively criticized. It seems to me that diplomacy is not the answer. The answer is to develop a tough skin, which enables you to benefit from ANY criticism. If I'm being critiqued, I need to figure out what bothered the critiquer and decide whether to do anything about it. I need to separate out any ad hominem aspect of the attack, and decide what's wrong. Something may really be wrong!

For example, let's imagine a conversation:
“Donald, you idiot! You left the fuel rod engaged.”
Donald says nothing.
“Donald, you total idiot! We're gong to have a meltdown. Disengage the fuel rods!”
Donald says nothing.
“Donald, please, I'm not sure about this, but it looks to me like we may have forgotten to disengage the fuel rods. Could you take a look?”
Donald replies, “Well, since you're finally being polite, I'll check it out.”
Seconds have been lost ...

It's too bad that for many people, diplomacy is the only answer.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Backing Up isn't always hard to do:

I keep my most precious computer files on one of those tiny, removable flash memories. This is the least reliable type of memory on the computers I use. The memory can get lost, can be stolen, or it can just stop working. So I'm really motivated to back it up. Wherever I am, I might copy the flash memory onto a PC. See how this works? I'm not backing up a PC, I'm using PCs as backup devices!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Please Press the Button (2)!

Last March 16th I blogged about an idea I had: you're hurrying to an elevator and you see someone walking past it, so you call to them to press the button for you. I've never had the nerve to do that. But I did open a new vista today. I asked someone who was getting OFF an elevator to hold it for me. I'm sure I couldn't possibly do that unless I knew the other person pretty well.

Monday, July 16, 2007

An amazing baseball game:

On June 24, 2007, the Mets played Oakland in New York. I started watching this game in the top of the ninth. There were two out, nobody on base, and Oakland trailed the Mets 10 to 2. After scanning the scoresheet, I realized that this was one of the most exciting moments in baseball that I had ever experienced, and I rooted for Oakland to score. Sadly, they made out and the game ended.

Had they scored, this would have been an incredibly rare game, because exactly one of the teams would have scored in every inning. The ninth was the only inning in which no runs crossed the plate. Oakland scored in the fifth and sixth innings, and the Mets scored in all the rest -- until that fateful ninth. I don't know how rare such a game is, but I've been keeping my eye out for such a game for at least twenty years. (My uncle Rob, a more devoted baseball fan than I, says he has seen games where teams score every inning. These involve a lot of one-run innings, and are called "picket fence" games because of the way the scoreboard looks.)

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Locker Room Men:

I recently joined a health club with a lap pool and lots of wonderful exercise machines. The men's locker room has nine shower stalls. One of these has an adjustable hand-held shower -- far and away my favorite -- and the other eight only have fixed, overhead showers. You might think that I would rarely get my favorite stall, but usually it is empty, even though three or four of the other showers are usually in use. Some of the men here may never have experienced the pleasaure of a hand-held, but most of them, I think, prefer the privacy of the other shower stalls.

The hand-held stall has a thin cloth shower curtain that does not quite cover the opening, and if you try, you can see through it. All the other stalls have frosted glass doors. So apparently most men at this club want their privacy while showering.

But that does't mean they are shy about their nakedness. About half of the men drape themselves carefully at all times, but the other half wander about the locker room naked. Some of them finish their showers and come out of their shower stalls naked. I've concluded that most men do not want anyone to see them naked, precisely when they are showering; but I can't imagine why.

Friday, July 13, 2007

New York City left a bad taste in my mouth:

I'm driving into Manhattan for a class, and parking is expensive. I paid $26 the first time. The second time, I parked at a meter that takes old-fashioned quarters on Columbus at 62nd street. There were 14 minutes on the meter. I added four more quarters to run the total up to 54 minutes. When I returned to my car, I had a ticket, written EIGHT minutes after I had put my quarters in the meter. Now I believe in Mayor Bloomberg's Congestion plan, but this is ridiculous. The meter seemed to be working, so either a policeman ignored the time I had on it, or he was incredibly careless.

The parking ticket cost $65. I could not see how it might be worth my time and effort to contest it, epecially since I live out of town. In fact, I thought that the crime I was ticketed for was actually DWJ (Driving While Jersey) since the cars at all the other meters had NY plates. From now on, I regard parking at a meter in NYC as strictly for chumps.