Friday, November 30, 2007

A cascade of alarms:

I worked in Virginia this week, waking up at 6 a.m. each day. Hotel rooms usually have one abstruse alarm clock-radio, and it's usually risky to assume that you how to make it work. So I often ask the desk clerk for a wakeup call. Most hotels now automate "personal" wakeup calls. I trust their computer to call me on time, more than a hotel clerk. Unless the computer is down, of course.

But in this case, I was able to set a cascade of alarms. My cell phone has three alarms. I had brought an alarm clock. I also used two alarms on my watch, and that hotel clock-radio. I set them up as I do at home when I need to wake at 4:20 a.m. (to turn on the radio station at 6): starting with the quietest alarm, working, in intervals of two minutes, to the loudest. Then I thought: I'm being silly!

At home, my goal is to wake up early without waking my wife. Alone in a hotel room, my goal should just be to wake up. So I set all the alarms for 6, 6:01 and 6:02, and their avalanche of sound woke me very nicely, thank you.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Duplicitous Salesmen, Double Salaries:

In the early '80s, I wrote software for Exxon Office Systems (EOS), one of the more disastrous ventures in the history of computing. Exxon tried to make EOS into a worldwide presence with sales in dozens of countries. They paid well – otherwise who would work for them? – but their sales force presented a special problem, one that's probably well-known in many industries.

Many of the sales people worked on their own, covering some large geographic region. They set their own hours and planned their own campaigns to make sales. Occasionally they reported to regional meetings or came to the home office for new information and training, but their real challenge was to sell enough to support themselves well, and they could use their time as they wished to accomplish that. (To raise their gross, some salesmen, when visiting the home office, would steal copies of new software applications not even ready for alpha testing and sell them, but that's important now.)

The problem was that sales were dismal. EOS sold some expensive, poor products. They also sold some very expensive good products. Prospective customers were wary of a gasoline company in the office business; so every sale was hard to make. In fact, most sales people could not live on their commissions. To keep sales people, EOS paid them decent salaries. Therefore most of their sales staff had little incentive to bust their chops to make a few more sales.

Remember how I described the life of the sales force above? Well with all that independence, it was understood that some sales people had two fulltime jobs. They sold just enough EOS products to keep getting their salary, and they also worked on commission, maybe even for for one of our competitors.

In September 1984, it became obvious that Exxon planned to shut down its Office Systems division. But they did not wield the axe until the following January, giving us all four more months of salary. In the interim, the documentation people set up a little shop to polish resumes for everybody. Marketing played trivial pursuit; the software people played computer games; the hardware designers worked on inventions that they could use to start up their own companies; and we suspected that many, many sales people took that second fulltime job.

Monday, November 26, 2007

"Port delays damaging fruit imports."

The title of his entry is a news headline that I read while on vacation. I like it for its ambiguity. For a wonderful few moments, I wondered why the port hadn't started damaging the fruit imports already.

Not at all!

Pity the poor fruits, just waiting there in the port, getting damaged.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

A tool is broken:

You know how easily it is to break a fingernail? I grabbed something wrong and cracked a piece off my right thumbnail. (I used to think that nails got brittle when you didn't eat enough calcium or protein, but we had been on vacation, eating an avalanche of Ca and Me, so forget that.) I filed the nail smooth, and it's not bothersome now. But the white part of the nail's profile dips low in the middle. And that's very important now.

My music player has a peculiar set of controls. When I first bought it, I thought I would hate it, but with use I discovered that the controls were brilliantly designed. There's a tiny touchpad on the device, and the plastic ring around the pad is actually four pushbuttons. You press the right edge, for example, to fast-forward. With your thumbnail. If you happen to have an ordinary sort of thumbnail, that is.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

What group are you in?

During our vacation, most of the guests in our large Israeli hotel were on religious (Christian) tours. We talked to a few of them and they seemed quite sincere. One morning I was talking to two Sapanish-extraction fellows from L.A., and I asked them which tour they were on. They both said the exact same thing:

Um . . .

Suddenly it occurred to me that a religious trip to the holyland might be an inexpensive way to vacation in Israel, even for Christians.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Microsoft, IBM, and the seven dwarfs:

Well, I'm writing abut Microsoft's Zune again. Microsoft has released new Zune models. Unlike the original ones, these music players are not a joke. Microsoft is trying to crack the music player market, starting at a great disadvantage, and it is fascinating to watch them and see what they can do.

The music player market is itself quite peculiar. Apple owns the overwhelming share with its iTunes products, and then a whole bunch of manufacturers come in second and third with less than (or much less than) 10% of the market. Microsoft claimed to be the second strongest manufacturer based on their original Zune products, but their sales numbers are suspect, because they announce how many players they send to stores, not how many are actually purchased by actual users.

It occurred to me that this player market looks a lot like the computer mainframe market of the 60's and 70's. That market was overwhelmingly dominated by IBM. There were a few also-rans, which we called the "seven dwarfs." Over time, the dwarfs disappeared, one by one. (Actually I believe two of these companies still exist, but they are not in mainframe competition as their old selves; they have evolved into different markets.) The history of the dwarfs suggests that in the player market, Microsoft has simply positioned itself to gradually fail. It just might sell players longer than, say Creative Zen, Moby or Sansa.

But of course Microsoft has a few other sources of revenue. They can weather storms that would have destroyed the seven dwarfs as long as they care to. Can they stay the course and gradually catch up? One opinion I've heard is that Microsoft has established itself in the player market as a great catcher-upper, while Apple is the established innovator. That's not good enough for old MSFT. We'll see.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

A slice of bread:

As I think I've mentioned, the hotel where we stayed on holiday offered a stupendous breakfast smörgåsbord. One feature was a great collection of breadloaves of every size and shape, with a wicked long knife to slice them. I used that knife to cut fine, thin slices, or to snip off just the top of a bagel encrusted with poppy seeds.

One morning I noticed a woman cut the largest slice I'd ever seen. She brought it back to her table with the usual plate full of foods. The slice was almost two inches thick, cut from a loaf about 5” by 5”. It was not quite as big as her head. Of course I wondered what she was going to do with it, so I kept a subtle eye peeled on her table.

From time to time, she tugged off a small bit of the “slice” and ate it straight, gradually reducing the noble slice to a jumble of crust.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

My father never caught a fish.

My father never caught a fish. Oh, he might have caught the occasional trout or a tiny sunfish, but that's not why he fished.

When I was fourteen, someone gave me a Milton Bradley jigsaw puzzle called “Trout Fishing”. It was a 1000 piece puzzle, all of them dark mottled brown, blue and green. It took us six weeks to put it together, and the faint form of a fisherman emerged amidst a jumble of leaves, twigs and water. I imagine my father as that fisher, wading into a good trout stream, dangling a lure, lost in thought. No fish would keep him company, but his ideal companions were there: twittering birds, rushing streamlets, wind-tossed greenery – to help him relax and think.

We never knew what he thought about while fishing, but he had so many interests – science experiments, amateur math, his law cases, classical music, patterns to work into ceramic designs, and so on, and so on – it seemed he could easily keep occupied if the fish left him alone.

The best part for him came afterwards: arriving home, opening his empty creel, and proclaiming himself the unluckiest fisherman of all.

Friday, November 16, 2007

How to eat a Smorgasboard:

Our Israeli hotel laid out fine breakfasts, with more than a dozen different vegetables, many kinds of yoghurt, many cheeses, many salads, and rolls, croissants, breadloaves, several kinds of fish and halvah. And dry and hot cereals. And shakshuka, potatoes au gratin, omelettes made to order, hot cheesecake, lots to drink and many other items I'm too lazy to mention.

In my limited experience, Israelis attack a grand breakfast layout differently than Americans. Most Americans tend to make multiple trips, sampling, deciding what they like, and going back for seconds and thirds. Israelis like to load up several plates full of tempting foods and array these plates on their table. Then they sit down and work away at their own grand meal.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

How to remove the yolk from a hard-cooked egg:

I'm now on a low cholesterol diet. A single egg yolk has almost three times as much cholesterol as I want to eat in a day, so I can only eat egg whites. This is a pity, because all the good taste is in the yolk. But whites have a terrific ratio of protein to calories, so I manage. (Egg whites are pretty good with maple syrup.)

I used to cut hard-cooked eggs in half lengthwise and scrape the yolks out, then eat the white. The yolks stick to the knife and make a bit of a mess. Fortunately, I found a better way. I make a shallow slit in the egg white and then strip it off the yolk. The yolk comes out as a perfect, uncut round ball, and it's easy to dispose of.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Specially Reserved:

While on vacation, we ate breakfast at our hotel, in an immense room with a fine smörgåsbord of tasty foods. The hotel has over 400 rooms, and while we were there it hosted many large touring groups. Breakfast tables were often reserved for specific groups. I liked the wording on the placards that reserved tables, for example:

Specially Reserved for Noseworthy Group.

It would be enough to say “reserved.” But “specially reserved” sounds particularly friendly and respectful.

The people who managed the breakfast room often wanted to keep us all one side of the room, to simplify cleaning and table-setting. They kept us away from other tables by using the same “Specially Reserved” signs, naming groups that had already left the hotel. This is a good recycling strategy, as there's really nothing else useful to do with a sign naming the Noseworthy tour, after those people have departed.

Monday, November 12, 2007


We're back from a lovely vacation, and I shall resume daily blogging.

As we prepared to leave home for two weeks, I agonized over whether to turn the heat on. It had been so summery all October, but now the forecast was for fall. As I saw it, I had to decide between two alternatives, each with its own risk:
  • Turn the heat on. But we have not used the furnace for months; something goes wrong, house burns down.
  • Leave the heat off. Pipes freeze.

After much thought, I decided that since our pipes have never frozen, the safe choice was to leave the heat off. We returned to a forty-four degree house! We turned the heat on at once, and after a while the temperature began to creep up about one degree per hour.

When I was deciding whether to leave the heat off, why didn't I think about returning to a cold house? Brrrrr.