Sunday, September 30, 2007

Down with Kibbitzing!

As a young teenager I played innumerable chess games with my friends. Then I discovered the Lynbrook, Long island VFW Tuesday Night Chess Club, my first exposure to somewhat organized chess pleasure. My strongest chess-playing friend joined the club with me, and I believe the middle-aged and older club members found us refreshing. There we had an experience that has repeated itself several times in my life. The strongest player (before we arrived, anyway) was an inveterate kibbitzer, offering his opinions loudly on other games in the middle of play. It's usually a very strong player who feels he has the right to kibbitz. But his advice does not nearly represent his full abilities; I think that's because these are not his games, so he's not thinking about them seriously enough. Anyway, as I'm sure you know, kibbitzing is annoying, so we decided to get even with him.

My friend and I memorized a great brilliancy, Lasker-Napier (1904). We were quite familiar with this game and had played it over while reading some decent analysis. The next time the kibbitzer sat down at our table, we reset the pieces and began to play this game right in front of him.

We REVELED in his stupid comments! He had no idea how brilliantly Lasker was playing, and he often congratulated me (I was playing Lasker's opponent) on my wise moves. At the end of the game he shook his head and announced that I should never have lost. after that, we felt we had ground this kibitzer right into the dust, even though he had no idea what had happened.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Really bad self-inflicted typos:

Your email program probably warns you about spelling errors. But it won't warn you about typing the wrong word, and you can type really awful wrong words in email. I've prevented myself from sending all but one of these:

Sincerely Yours, Toy [instead of: Toby]

Dead Ralph, It was nice to hear from you ...

Jane, I'm glad to see you're woring on this problem.

Alice, just a grief reminder ...

Jim, I haven't heard from you in a whine.

I reviewed your plan. It sounds goof to me.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

He's on vacation, leave him alone!

Have you ever had this work exprience: a really awful emergency arises at work, and everyone knows exactly who can deal with it: a person who's on vacation. By the time that person returns to work, it may be toooo late. What have you done when faced wth this dilemma?

Most experienced people know that in a real emergency, a work call could interrupt their vacation. I know one guy who charged his entire vacation -- family expenses and all -- to his company after they made him spend hours every day on the phone. I also know a guy who was careful not to be interrupted:

When I was working at Exxon Office Systems, in September 1984, Exxon gave clear and unambiguous notice that they were planning to fold the Office Systems division. We all knew that there was only one last hope, that the officers of the company could quickly present an appealing plan to improve our division. To do this, they needed the director of Engineering, who was on vacation. All anyone knew was that he was on some sort of boat, somewhere in the Pacific. Nobody bothered him with this crisis. They just couldn't figure out how to find him.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Can you hear me?

In August I had a great wireless experience, and Verizon could make an advertisement out of it. I was working at this little airport the middle of Virginia, in a hectic crisis alongside many hardware and software developers. People called me to speak to other people; people borrowed my phone to call other people. When I wanted to make a call, I had to beg for my phone back. Because I HAD VERIZON'S GREAT COVERAGE! You could hear me!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

A quick update on tomatoes (2007):

This year we planted fullsize tomato plants and cherry toomatoes. The cherry tomatoes were a spectacular success. We picked 900. (Last year we got 489.) And they were delicious. The fullsize ones were a disappointment: 23 (we had 40 last year). At season-end I finally started looking online for advice on how to prune tomatoes. I discovered that there IS excellent advice, and I have not nearly been following it. It's also obvious, now, that I should not plant cherry tomato plants right next to fullsize plants, for the sprawling cherry tomato growths overwhelmed the biggies.

While reading advice about pruning, I became certain that cherry tomatoes should not be pruned the same as big ones. If I did that, I would lose about 80 percent of my cherry crop! So I was happy to find the following advice about pruning cherry tomatoes, which suggests I was doing just about the right thing for them:
Pruning and staking increases earliness to fruiting, at the expense of yield.
Earliness to fruiting, Hm? Next year, I might try pruning ONE cherry tomato plant.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Generations of Computer Programming:

In the first generation of computer programming, there were manufacturer's manuals. You read them, you studied them, you figured out how to program the computer. (One of my consulting friends had a great story about not even having these machine manuals. I must tell you about it some day...)

In the second generation, everyone also had a few good books about programming. Otherwise: we relied on those manufacturer's manuals.

In the third generation: everyone had about ten books on programming, but if you needed to figure out how to do soomething useful, you consulted your guru. Every programming staff had a few gurus (to cover many different topics), and you couldn't live without them.

In the fourth generation -- the present, that is -- everyone has at least twenty books on programming. But routinely, to figure out how to do something useful, we search the web.

A weeks ago, I needed to write a program -- right now, right this minute! -- to convert video in YUV 420 format, to YVU 422 format. In my opinion, after running all the usual web searches, YVU 422 is rather ambiguous, it has too many permissible forms. In any case, the video was not displaying correctly, I obviously had not figured out the format. At about 9 PM (EDT) I found myself hitting the telephone. Whom could I call right now who would know more about video than I? It was Guru Time, a great nostalgic throwback to the third generation of computer programming. My Gurus came through for me, too.

Thursday, September 20, 2007


I have laryngitis. It hurts to talk. At all. A lot. But I've been through this before. There were times when I went to work with laryngitis. To avoid talking to people, I brought a few index cards on which I pre-printed the few responses I would need to get through the day. I brought a few standards, like Yes, No, and "This too shall pass". I also pre-printed one or two specials, like the card that said: "You MUST implement the remote control package as a dll!"

Now here are the cards I took to the supermarket last night:
Laryngitis, I can't speak.
This too shall pass.
It's a plantain. The PLU code is: 4235

But as soon as I reached checkout, I knew I was going to have to speak. I had forgotten to bring a card that would answer this question:
"Credit or Debit?"

Now you might think I should have brought a card saying "Credit", but I always prefer a card that has more general application. This card would have been fine:
"Um, what was that second choice again?"

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Doors with Windows:

While I was working at Intel, the company implemented a policy that all doors must have eye-level windows. I watched carpenters modify doors in accordance with this policy, and I think it's a good idea. If you can always see into a room, there's less chance it will be used for robbery, espionage, chicanery, sexual quickies or sexual harassment. But I must admit, I remember seeing few truly beautiful doors with big, eye-level windows in them.

I was reminded of that last night, when I approached one of the nicer buildings on our local university campus. I faced a pair of giant, windowless doors. Their beautifully finished wood glowed in the light of a nearby red LED sign. I was about to step up to these doors and open them, but an undergrad was quickly catching up to me, so I stepped aside to let him have the honor. As he did so, the doors opened smartly from within, clobbering the undergrad and knocking him down.

Doors with Windows ... a word to the wise.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Hark, Hark, the Lark:

If you like Schubert songs, you might still not enjoy his setting of this Shakespeare poem: "Hark, Hark, the Lark at Heaven's Gate sings", etc. The problem is the way the German sounds: "Horch, Horch, die Lerch ..." Not as elegant as the English original.

But you can sing it in English, can't you? Well ... you can, but you can't quite use Shakepeare's own words. Schubert composed a setting of the German translation, and parts of the original English don't fit the music. My father tried to sing Shakepeare's words to Schubert's melody and was quite disappointed. You can sing an English translation of Schubert's German, but it's not quite Shakespeare.

Monday, September 17, 2007

I should have known ...

Now here's what ought to be one of the great advantages of reading while growing up. After reading about all the tragic mistakes people make in works of fiction, you'll know better, you'll never repeat them in your own life, right?

I wish. Despite reading much wonderful fiction in which the conflict turns on a father's expectations that his children will share his interests, I still expected my children to gravitate quickly to my own interests. The good news is that my disappointments were not the stuff of great, tragic fiction. And at least, I've relearned that lesson, right? I know better than to let my own expectations override my own experience.

I wish. Which brings us to: beta testing.

I know a lot about beta testing. I've been closely involved in many product tests. I have a pretty good idea of what you have to do to get adequate comments about a nearly complete product. One important matter is the size of your beta test: many of the people who agree to test a product will never be heard from again. Many of them will give you such vague comments that you'll have no idea how much they used it, whether they liked it, and whether it works. Some of your beta testers will have chillingly horrible experiences, but give you too little information, so that you will wonder whether your product contains a horrible bomb that's going to blow up right and left, or whether that tester was very unlucky. I could go on. But the point is, I KNOW this stuff, right?

I wish. Which brings me to the fantasy novel I'm writing. I've found more than a dozen people to read it. And that means that it's in beta testing right now. And I fancied that getting it into the hands of so few people would give me plenty of good feedback. Why didn't I realize that this beta test would be like all the others?

Hey, thanks for listening. I feel better already.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Home Computing:

In 1969, we had a teletype in our kitchen, that communicated (at 10 characters per second) with a midsize computer system, giving us access to word processing and many snazzy compilers.

In 1978, I had a home computer based on the Zilog Z80 chip, assembled by the company I worked for (Exxon), with an 8.5 inch floppy disk that had the astounding capacity of 110,000 characters per floppy.

In 1981, we bought our first of many PCs, a gift from my mother. I recently found the itemization list for this little beast, and here it is. My eyes mist over, just thinking about it:
$1,760 IBM PC Chassis
$193 Keytronics keyboard. (We liked its touch.)
$269 "Sixpak" expansion board by AST. This little jobby gave us our parallel and seial ports, plus some memory.
$64 An A/C line filter
$32 Printer cable
$150 192K additional memory (this was a 640K machine!!!)
$409 Princeton Graphics display controller, supporting both color (at this time, IBM itself did not support color) and excellent mono.
$291 Shugart 5.5" floppy drive. (360K capacity per floppy.)
The total was just under $3200. We used a "loaner" color CRT for a long time with this PC, and we also bought a word processor for us parents, and a word processor for our children, about another $300, I think.

Ah, those were the days...

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


Like many men, I have the gene for tossing things into garbage cans. I work on my follow-through, it makes a difference. When I score from, say, five feet away, I've saved myself a few steps. When I miss, I have to walk, pick up and try again, but I fancy that I come out ahead. In entertainment value, anyway.

Today I had an experience that I think I've never had before. I tossed a plastic cup at a garbage can against a wall. I overthrew, and the thing bounced right back to me, so that I could pick it up and effortlessly try again, with no extra steps. I threw short, twice, walking over and picking the cup up, before finally dropping it into the can.

Better luck next time.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Verizon, DNS, "OpenDNS"

We connect to the Internet via Verizon DSL. Recently, say, in August, we've gone “offline” a lot. Sometimes I thought I had to restart our router and modem, sometimes the service just came back by itself. The problem: we seemed to be connected, but our browser “couldn't find” any websites. At last it occurred to me that the problem might lie in Verizon's DNS servers, or “name servers.” The job of these computer systems is to translate site names like or into numeric addresses like If your computer has the numeric address, it can send an Internet message. Almost every time you enter, or click on, a named website, a “name server” is asked to translate that name into its number.

There's a free name server called OpenDNS that anyone can use. I modified our router to use it instead of the Verizon name servers, and we've had no “offline” troubles ever since. Coincidence? Hmmmm...

I just did a little web searching, and it seems that other people are complaining about Verizon's name servers. The issue is particularly poignant for Verizon FIOS users, who may not be able to tell their Verizon routers to switch name servers.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Where's the Cruise Control?

When I rent a car, I don't drive away until I know its basics. If I can't find the safety brake or the “brights” switch, I'll ask. But on a hot day, after dragging the car guy out to explain the user interface to me, and discovering that there seemed to be no cruise control, I quietly gave up and drove off.

But there HAD to be cruise control! There always is in a rented car, and this was a full-size fancy car, with its sixty icons. While driving, an idea occurred to me. One button had a really weird pictogram on it, a sort of half-compass with an arrow pointing into it. I had pressed that button when the car was parked at the rental place, and nothing happened. But you can't turn cruise control on when you're parked, you have to be driving over thirty or so. So I hit the button again, on a dark, rainy stretch of the PA Turnpike.

At once it was evident that I had turned cruise control on. This funny button was at the end of a separate stalk behind the steering wheel, on the left. (Excellent idea, most people have better control with their left hand than their right...). There was a three-position slider on this stalk, and it had three icons for its positions: a zero, a vertical bar, and a plus, like this: 0 | +
Now most cruise controls have about the same functionality, you just have to figure out how to turn them on and off, how to acellerate and slow down, and how to resume the previously selected speed. Thank goodness, because there was nothing obvious about this 3-way slider. I believe I figured out its three positions:
Totally Off; Don't care; accelerate/resume.

Now here's what's weird about all this: one of the truly natural things to do with a cruise control is to gradually adjust your speed, a little up, a little down. I would have liked to push that slider one way to accelerate, the other way to slow down. But NO! I pushed it to the right to accelerate, and I pushed the button at the end of the stalk, the one that turned on cruise control, to slow down.

Thanks for listening! I hated that cruise control; at least, I didn't have to keep all that misery to myself.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Icons, Icons, Icons ...

During the ten days I rented a full-size Pontiac, driving it nearly 1500 miles, I got to know it pretty well. The first few days were a voyage of discovery into the unknown, however. I had no manual for the car, and had to rely on the little symbols on the knobs, buttons and sliders to figure the car out. In the software business, most of us know that there's no such thing as an “obvious” symbol for anything. I think that the car manufacturers, as they manage the slow slide of the automobile interface from obvious and universal to original, incomprehensible and quirky, have a bit to learn about icons.

The best thing you can say about icons is that they do not have to be translated. You can use the same symbols in every country, which lowers Internationalization costs. It matters not that some of these icons will be cultural-specific. It matters not that some of them will make no sense to anybody. They just DON'T HAVE TO BE TRANSLATED.

Perhaps you'll understand why I'm working up such a snit when I tell you that my rented car had sixty icons visible from the driver's seat. Oh, maybe there were more somewhere; I counted sixty. The icons were not all different, mind you. In several cases, the same symbol was reused, FOR DIFFERENT FUNCTIONS. And most of them were pretty obvious, leaving maybe twenty as an exercise for the busy driver. I will reserve the cruise-control icons for a separate blog entry, they richly deserve it. Otherwise, my favorite icon was a button that looked a lot like the old symbol for the “enter” key, a sort of abstract indicator of a carriage return. This button turned out to be the “interact” button. If pressing any other button required you to make a choice, you pressed the “interact” button to go through your choices. If pressing a button required you to confirm you'd seen something, or if the car wanted to know you'd seen a warning message, you pressed the “interact” button. Quite a concept!

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

How I learned to Shout:

I took several years of singing lessons. They were really good for my singing. I can do a lot with my now half-trained voice, and I have stamina I would never have had without the lessons. I've even got a pretty good sound.

But that's not important. What's important is that before I learned to sing, I had no idea how to shout. When I raised my voice, I went hoarse pretty fast, or my throat got sore. But a trained voice can make serious noise! All that resonance, the volume! On rare occasions, when I shout from the heart – I'm that angry – I wreck my throat like I used to. But generally, I switch to my singing voice to shout, and it's effortless.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The International Standards for use of color make sense!

In the early 1980's I worked at a company that sold its products all round the world. Parts of the hardware and software had to be reworked for different countries, but to some extent we tried to follow Swiss standards everywhere for signal emissions and use of colors, for they were the toughest in the world at that time. The color standard is deceptively simple: Green for information, yellow for warning, red for danger. Now how do you apply these colors to computer products?

Here's a simple case: A light on the disk drive blinks on when data is written to the drive. What color should it be? If the drive is removable; if it's say, a floppy drive, then make the light red, because you'll lose data if you pull it out while the light's on. For a fixed drive, make the light green, it's just information. (We used to argue over this kind of stuff for days.)

I drove a full-size rental car for ten days, and I REALLY thought about those standards. This car is full of displays that you can modify and set with options. One of them is whether to display your speed in mph or kph. There's no danger of forgetting which you've chosen, because the car displays these units on the dashboard ALL THE TIME, in RED! While driving, my eyes strayed to that bit of red every two minutes. Red means danger, after all.

If you ask me, the mph display should be green, except that it would be neat to change it to yellow above, say, 55. And change the kph from green to yellow above 100. And give me a display where I can change that boundary speed for the color change. (How parameterized should a car be? I think there should be so many settings to review that a twenty minute traffic jam's not boring.)

Monday, September 03, 2007

I want a waterproof lap counter:

I want a wrist-wear gadget that counts the laps I swim. It's tedious counting laps. All this gadget has to do is increment a counter each time I make a 180 degree turn. And of course it has to be waterproof. There's a market for my gadget! The closest thing I can find is a thingy you stick, underwater, to the end of your pool. You press its big button each time you pass it. If you search for "lap counter" and "waterproof". you'll find some even lamer solutions to my problem. Why should I have to press a button? Let the gadget figure out that I'm turning around!

UPDATE! My commenter (THANKS!) pointed me to exactly the device I want. It does count laps by sensing turnaround, and it does a lot more. It's called the Clothing+ Swim Distance Tracker, and it is available (for now?) only in Finland? I've got to get one.