Thursday, January 31, 2008

Org Chart Blues – Vanquished.

I've worked in organizations of 100 to 500 people who experienced horrible, traumatic events with org charts. Imagine a wide sheet of paper full of boxes, showing all the managerial hierarchy. Now I'll tell you about my two favorite disasters:

(1) There was a hurried layoff and a reorg. We all got together in the auditorium to be told what a much better company we were now. Somebody asked about the org chart. “It's not ready yet,” we were told. We knew what that meant: the remaining high level managers were still arguing about who manages whom. Five unsure months passed, during which, as you might guess, there was no sure hand on the tiller. At last, we got an org chart. The next reorg followed a few weeks later.

(2) There was a gigantic, hurried reorg. We all got together in the auditorium to be told how the organization had refocused on its goals. The new org chart was passed out,and a speaker started to explain it.
One of the six most senior managers in the room howled “I'm not on the org chart!”
“See me later,” said the speaker. No, the fellow was not fired, but he was off the org chart for a trembly month.

The company I work at now has no such problems, because it does not seem to have a classical org chart. There is a data base anyone can consult to look up people's phone numbers, office addresses, and also who they manage, and who manages them. And of course it's kept up to date, as much as Murphy's Law and the old classical uncertainties allow. If this new-fangled org chart is totally out of kilter, nobody might notice, because you can only see a little piece of it at a time. I was thinking about that today when I looked up the person responsible for my work. According to the “org chart” we are in a tight loop: he oversees my work, and my work is overseen by him; and he reports to nobody. (But of course he DOES report to somebody, the “org chart” is just a wee bit behind the times.)

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Have you accepted liability fro $10,000,000 of Damage? Or more?

Last Jan 22, I blogged about my attempt to get to accept my modified Terms of Service so that I could use their account. When this story is over (somehow, it isn't!), I will tell you all about it. But meanwhile, I want to warn you, in case you agreed to a similar term.

I'm not a lawyer, but I suspect this ToS term means what it says: that regardless of how careful you are, you are responsible for any damage done by a hacker who logs in, somehow, as you:

Accounts, Passwords, and Security
You must be a registered User to create Networks on the Ning Platform. Networks and their Network Creators, in turn, determine whether Users need to be registered with Ning to contribute Content in that Network. That is up to the discretion of the Network Creator. As a User, you are responsible for keeping your password secure. Names of Social Networks and Ning IDs are non-transferable. You will be solely responsible and liable for any activity that occurs under your Ning ID.

You say you don't know what ToS terms you've ever agreed to? Well for starters, here's a Google search of some websites who have that ToS.

NING told me that over 150,000 people have accepted their ToS. I think the chance of me personally having to pay for hacker-caused damages is very small. The collective risk to any of 150,000 people might be greater.

By the way, I assume that every web site that uses this ToS term -- especially NING -- has excellent security to prevent the type of breakin I fear. If so, it might even be safe to agree to this ToS term. But security is not perfect, and none of these sites has shown me how they keep my data secure. In the lack of knowledge, I shall be cautious. What about you?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Name Tag:

You know those events where they put your name on a tag? I saw a woman named: Shrill Price. That's what her tag said. Sometimes you can't just keep your mouth shut, you have to ask, and I'm glad I did.
"Say, you have an unusual name!"
"Oh, it's Sherill Price, I haven't had time to get them to correct it."

Monday, January 28, 2008

Terms of Service: Silly Legal!

I'm sure you're all aware that legal issues are often decided by common sense. In other cases, the precise letter of the law governs all. It's risky to rely on common sense, because you never know when you've got to pay exact attention to what a law, or a contract says.

I hope that bit of philosophy helps you to understand why I thought thrice before agreeing to yet another Terms of Service for a major software product. (By the way, I'll soon tell you the full story of my attempt to modify a company's Terms of Service, the story I began last Tuesday, the 22nd. I have good news and bad news.)

Anyway, the company I work at has some crown jewels, and one of these is a product that I am helping to evolve. (I'm just a bit player here, I claim no credit for its brilliance.) I had to install it today, so that my newest software would become part of it in our current project. Frankly, I simply could not agree to this term in the ToS:
You may not: ...
· reverse engineer, decompile, disassemble, modify, translate, make any attempt to discover the source code of the Software, or create derivative works from the Software;
· separate the Software into component parts for use by more than one user;

If you were to ask me what I DO at work, I would say that the above lines pretty much describe it. How can I agree NOT to do my daily work? But I had to agree to the ToS, in order to do exactly what it forbids.

Common sense better prevail this time.

Sunday, January 27, 2008


I have invented a new kind of word puzzle: The “HOWL”, or Homonymic Word Ladder. In an ordinary word ladder, you change one word into another in a series of steps. At each step, you change one letter, in place, to form a new word. In a HOWL, you are also allowed to replace a word by its homonym. Here's a simple example: Build a HOWL from Duet to Pucker:


Here's a simple one for you: Build a HOWL from rind to shine.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Email: so polite!

HP sent me an advertisement about a new computer. Their ad is full of pictures. It's tricked up in tons of HTML. But HP knows that some email programs cannot display HTML properly. So the ad begins with a little message for those poor users.

Gmail showed me just part of that message, but I think they had exactly the right idea:
If you are having difficulty viewing this mess

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Espresso Squeeze:

I've been brainwashed by the search for the perfect cup of coffee. I am not a participant in this search, but I read about it all the time. I have an expensive espresso coffee maker. It's expensive by my standards, but purists would laugh at how little I've spent on my hardware. I believe I make espresso that's better than any Starbuck, better than most coffee houses can make. That's good enough for me.

But yesterday, reading about $11,000 and $20,000 devices that brew a truly, truly, amazingly, remarkably, perfectly fine cup, I realized that I had to get this brainwashy idea of coffee perfection out of my head. I acted on my perception, and now I can recommend to you a truly practical way to use your espresso maker. If anything, my coffee-making is now influenced by the Gongfu method of tea-making.

First, use your espresso maker to make your cup of coffee. Enjoy it. If it pleases you, that's perfection. But note: espresso coffee generally has less caffeine than regularly brewed coffee. Not enough perhaps, to face the day. But never fear! You can empty the little basket, pour in fresh grounds, and start over, can't you?

No! Stop! This is where we make our mistake!

After you've made that first cup, there's lots of caffeine left in the used grounds. Run some more steam through for cup #2. And cup #3. And maybe even cup #4. Give up when the “brewed” liquid hardly looks brown. We're not trying for taste now! We'll probably mix this stuff with milk, sugar, honey, anything to cover the weak taste. But there's CAFFEINE in there! We paid for it, we packed it into our espresso maker, and we deserve to push it right into our eager bodies.

I'm a little wired right now, but that's all right. My caffeine will last me through the day.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Who's to Blame for those sub-prime mortgages?

Yesterday, a New York Times article pointed out that everybody is suing everybody over the collapse of the subprime mortgages and the financial instruments built upon them. They ask, in that case, who's to blame? My suspicion is that an awful lot of the big entities who traded this junk knew what they were getting into, and they could all have used an extra dose of decency. But this stuff is way beyond me. I won't offer you any financial analysis; I'll just tell you a little story that my father liked. I'm afraid it's ... germane.

A man calls another man and says, "I've got a shipment of sardines to sell you. Ten cents a tin."
"Sounds okay," says the other. "I'll buy it."
Shortly afterwards, that fellow calls a friend. "I've got a shipment of sardines to sell you. Eleven cents a tin."
"Sounds good," says his friend. "I'll buy it."
Later, that fellow makes a call ... and right here, we'll make a long story short.
A few days later, the original fellow gets to wondering what happened to his trade. He calls his friend, calls that friend's friend, and so on, until he gets to the guy who bought the shipment for eighteen cents a tin.
"And who did you sell it to?" he asks.
"I'm not selling it. The wife and I LIKE sardines. We're going to eat them. When do they ship?"
"When do they ship? What do you mean? These sardines are only for buying and selling!"

Anyody want to live in a sardine tin?

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

I'm trying to modify a web site's Terms of Service, and it feels Great!

Several times, I have given up on joining a web community because I could not accept their terms of service. The problem is a common phrase that makes me too liable (see below). Today I just really wanted to join a website, to participate in their forums. I did join, but I tried something new: I emailed them that I had agreed to modified terms of service, and gave them a month to get back to me if they disagree. I have no idea what legal force this has. MFWAL (My father was a lawyer.)

Here's the obnoxious term. It's a common one on the internet:

"You must be a registered User to create Networks on the [xxx] Platform. Networks and their Network Creators, in turn, determine whether Users need to be registered with [xxx] to contribute Content in that Network. That is up to the discretion of the Network Creator. As a User, you are responsible for keeping your password secure. Names of Social Networks and [xxx] IDs are non-transferable. You will be solely responsible and liable for any activity that occurs under your Ning ID."

The last sentence is the problem. The above paragraph proposes to hold me responsible for anything that might happen if a hacker, or anyone with inside access, figures out how to log in as me, even if I keep my password secret and do not authorize, aid or abet them. I cannot accept responsibility for such events that are totally beyond my control. (In fact, I know of websites that do not even encrypt their user's passwords. This particular website has not told me what they do with my password. They never do!)

I added the following sentence to the above paragraph:

"Except that you will not be responsible and liable for any activity that happens under your Ning ID, having kept your password secure, if another person or computer or computer program logs in as you, without your assistance or authorization, and performs any activity."

I have no idea what's going to happen, but I feel unexpectedly great!
First, I got to use their forums, and even if they throw me off in a few weeks for trying to modify their TOS, I haven't been shut out.
Second, I don't feel like someone is walking over me with their TOS. I agreed to MY form of their TOS, and now I believe I'm negotiating with them.

They have till feb 20 to respond to me. I'm sure I'll be eager to fill you in.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

One of 237 reasons for having sex:

Now I want to be clear: this is a reason for OTHER people to use. Not people like you and me, except possibly in the privacy of our own homes. There was a study about why people have sex. Of the 237 reasons given, this one is quite striking:
The opportunity presented itself.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Vista's failure: Did history repeat itself?

Microsoft's new Vista operating system has been widely viewed as a failure, having sold perhaps 100 million copies in its first year. Now please indulge me, and assume it really IS a failure. There are reasons for thinking it so. I believe that one great reason for its failure can be found in this well-known quote from George Santayana, who said something like this: Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

But now it gets interesting. What did MS fail to learn from history? First, let's look at: Drivers.

I was there when Windows competed directly against IBM's OS 2. I developed software for both these OS's at the same time. Many reasons were suggested for OS2's abject failure, despite its greater reliability and wide range of features. One of the causes is almost undisputed: it was much harder to develop a driver for OS2 than for Windows. Typically, we said that it took six months to learn to write an IBM device driver. (It took one to two months for a Windows driver.) That meant that many line printers, scanners, special devices and boards were unsupported when IBM's new OS came out. Many existing devices were never supported.

Look at the economics. Those six months of coming up to speed meant a likely cost of $50,000 to $100,000 to develop a driver. If you expected to sell a hundred boards, or a thousand printers, then that cost, typically multiplied by two times or more, just WHOMPED your retail price. For a product that had 1000 satisfied users, but no more likely sales in the future, that $50k to $100k was prohibitive; your device would never run under OS2.

One great characteristic of Vista is that it is much harder to write drivers for. The difficulty stems largely from Microsoft's attempt to support digital rights management everywhere, so that there's no way to copy something for free as data is passed around in your PC. This goal is impossible to achieve, but MS required video and audio vendors to TRY HARD, and much complexity resulted. In many cases, working drivers were not ready in time to deliver with Vista, and fixes had to be downloaded. It's likely that 99% or more of all Vista installs worked perfectly, but the people whose hardware stopped working have been very vocal. It looks like MS failed to learn the lesson of device drivers, a lesson less than twenty years old.

But I think that it's a different history lesson that MS failed to heed: the lesson of the IBM OS/370 operating system. IBM delivered many new and different mainframes in the1950's and 1960's. They developed a new OS for each major mainframe. Every OS had wonderful improvements, and IBM's customers dutifully moved to the new OS each time it came out.

OS/360 was the last OS that IBM's customers blindly adopted. It was a gigantic change from what came before, and the costs of upgrading and retraining were stupendous. Around 1970, when IBM released OS/370 and asked everyone to upgrade, its customers got nasty. They mentioned the great costs of upgrading, and stayed where they were if they possibly could.

What was IBM's lesson in this mess? The lesson was that they needed to remember that they were competing with themselves. Their outside competition was minuscule, six companies with tiny market shares. But OS/370 had to compete with IBM's own entrenched OS/360, and there, it nearly failed.

Microsoft's operating systems also have little outside competition. Mac OS, Unix and Linux have a minority share of the market. But Vista has had to compete with Microsoft's own entrenched Windows XP. Microsoft forgot that they have to compete with themselves as well as with others. That's the lesson they failed to learn.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Skulking Scofflaw:

My car's registration sticker says “11” on it. But November came and went without my getting my car inspected. My car's old; I expected it to fail. I'm trying to nurse it through old age. I don't want to pay a few hundred bucks to get through reinspection.

But now it's January, and I always fear getting a ticket for not getting inspected on time. Today was the day! I greatly feared being stopped by a policeman on the way to inspection and getting that $65 ticket.

“I'm going to get inspected right now,” I would say to the policeman.
“Yeah. Right,” he would say.

So in hope of getting, at worst, a warning, I printed a page on my printer that said I was going, on Jan 15 at noon, to inspection. I signed it with a magic marker in my kitchen. I have NO magic markers in my car, so if a policeman stopped me, I would really look like I was on my way to inspection!

I drove all back roads to the inspection station. Fortunately – VERY fortunately, as you will see – the line was short.

I got up to the inspection guy. He looked at my car and did a mild double take. Then he walked over.

“Do you want the good news or the bad news?” he asked.
“What's the good news?”
“Your inspection sticker is good till November 2008. You're good!”
“What's the bad news, then?”
“You have to leave.”

I left.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Ideal Hotel Temperature:

It costs a lot of money to heat (or cool) a big hotel, especially in a warm country. And the hotel we stayed at in Israel had a tight budget. We learned to our surprise that we did not want to be caught in weather between 70 and 77 degrees! Below 70, our room was reasonably cool. Above 77, it was air-conditioned. In between, our room was just hot. Very tricky ...

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Would you (12) open an Email with this Subject?

  • she coils her creamy muscles
  • The difference between soft and regular Alan
  • Your Manhood is in danger
  • icosahedron but molecule the spiny

Or would you open an email from:
  • Fidelity M. Loonier
  • Account: Opened
  • Baroness Karen Peterson

I did read one spam message I shouldn't have opened, and this is what it said:
"Any movie theater can conquer near gypsy, but it takes a real snow to for tomato."

Thursday, January 10, 2008


There are challenges in life that bring out the macho in the man. Today, the challenge was my electric razor. I want to change the razor's battery, because it holds a charge for about 36 hours. My razor is held shut by two screws. Removing them allows me to see what the battery is and order a replacement. Or so I thought.

The two screws were screwed in tight. The screwheads seemed to require a Phillips screwdriver, but the depression in the center of the screwhead wase shallow. That meant a screwdriver of the approximate correct size did not make firm contact with the screwhead slots, and the screw refused to turn. I tried small regular screwdrivers, and they got into the slots, but they were too fragile to survive enough torque to turn the screws. (If you're wondering, the screws looked like they would not fit a “star” screwdriver either.)

So I took my razor to my Ace hardware store to find the ideal screwdriver. And when I quickly failed, I asked an employee to try. This guy took more than ten minutes, trying many screwdrivers, twisting with all his might, and stripping my screwheads. When none of the store's screwdrivers fit, he pulled his own eighteen-screwdriver thingy out of his pocket and kept trying. Well, eventually he gave up, but not before using up all his macho spirit.

I asked him to select the Phillips screwdriver that came closest to matching the screw, and I bought it. I took it home and clipped the point off the screwdriver. It now fit perfectly into the screwhead, and wish I had some good news to report.

I got the razor partly open and discovered that a wire is actually GLUED to th outer surface of the battery. Opening the razor fully will require fiddling a lot of wires. It does not look like an operation for the casual end-user.

Now I went macho on my previous electric razor, trying to install batteries and watching a few small parts spring across the room and vanish. Enough! I got this razor at a great price, and it will cost almost as much to send it away for a battery change.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

CNN Weather advisory:

Yesterday, I watched CNN on an overhead monitor (no sound). The following weather warning caught my eye:


Actually, that was not the entire advisory. I eventually noticed the second line:


I'm in New Jersey; I can relax now.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Plan your vacation around your work schedule! Not!

I remember a rather hysterical period in my work career: The whole group tizzied, trying to meet a long string of nearly impossible deadlines. Our manager wanted very badly to take a week off to ski. But there was a particularly critical moment in our project, and she just HAD to be at work then, so she scheduled her ski trip after that critical moment. The project slipped, so she rescheduled. And so on, for three slipping, rescheduling months.

I made up my mind then that I would never plan my vacation around my work schedule. Just plan the trip, buy the tickets, and hope for the best. I've scheduled vacations to conflict with critical work moments many times, yet I think there has never been a vacation/work schedule conflict for me.

By the way, when I said that this project had nearly impossible deadlines, I meant it. Here's how we referred to three of those deadlines in our formal schedule:
  • Fool our manager into thinking the completed software compiles.
  • Fool our director into thinking that the main functionality works.
  • Fool the customer into thinking that the software's ready to ship.

And imagine how proud we were, when the software actually was ready to ship.

Friday, January 04, 2008

A recipe today, Winter Squash Fu-fu:

I cooked a squash that looked like a giant acorn, but probably any winter squash will do. Cut the squash in half and remove the seeds and their binding strands. Then take your titanium spork (I doubt an ordinary fork will work as well) and scrape, scrape, scrape away at the squash's interior. You will eventually scrape free hundreds of short strands. Gently transfer these to a hot, oily pan and fry gently. Delicious! (You might add black pepper to taste. You might also fry the squash, as I did, with sweet plantain.)

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Human Nature again:

We went to our exercise place today, and it was unbelievably crowded. In six months, we've never seen so many people there. Almost all of the dozens of treadmills and cycling and stepping machines were busy. One of the trainers said it's always like this on January first. Seems like people make resolutions ...