Monday, March 31, 2008

A Nation of Criminals:

My wife is a treasurer for an organization, and all of their expenditure receipts must come to her. Quite regularly, an envelope without a stamp drops through our mail slot with the latest batch of receipts. The man who delivers these letters to us is a federal criminal, but I doubt he knows it. It's possible that the law he is breaking turns more of us into federal fugitives from justice than any other. We're a nation of criminals.

In order to assure a reasonable income for the US Post Office, our government grants them a monopoly to deliver mail. One of the things that makes messenger services so expensive, is that they must actually pay the USPO the going rate for most of their own deliveries. Remarkably, that monopoly extends to your mailbox, and to the hole in your home that one is expected to push mail through. I confess to breaking this law many times when our kids were young, when there were party invitations to deliver. Have YOU broken this law?

Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Next Disastrous Financial Crisis:

This is NOT a political piece. Trust me, you'll see. What led me to write this was a recent news story, alleging that a prestigious accounting firm had helped a large financial company to hide losses in the subprime mess by letting them report actual losses as profits. Why not add a sneaky accounting firm to the long list of those responsible for our current financial morass. I took a deep breath and jumped to an obvious conclusion, one you're likely to agree with: among the many big financial players in today's markets, there are a lot of greedy, unethical, immoral bastards who will seize any loophole or opportunity to make more money than they can possibly need.

Our governments are trying to decide how to revise our financial regulations to make sure that the latest debacle never happens again. Sensible people differ greatly here, some even arguing that we need less regulation, not more. I'm not taking a position among them, I just want to point out that whatever regulations we decide to adopt, matters are increasingly hopeless. You'll see what I mean when I bring anti-ballistic missiles and ant-immigration walls into the discussion.

Missile defenses, border walls, and financial regulations have one striking thing in common: they are defenses that are cumbersome to erect and expensive to put in place. Those who wish to attack any of these need merely find some hole, some loophole, some unexpected omission, and they can attack right through it, especially if they have no sense of ethics or morality, or fair play, to hold them back. For every set of financial regulations ever adopted in the USA, there has been a shattering way to get around them and create disaster. What is new today is just how fast these plans of attack can be put into action, using computers and sophisticated software. Perhaps it used to take five years to make new regulations and ten years to defeat them. Now it's more likely to take a few months to break any new laws and regulations. Yes! I'm blaming computers, for speeding up the potential to invent new fraud.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

I've joined the Leapfrog Fly Fusion Generation:

I've become an avid user of the Leapfrog Fly Fusion Pen, a fat pen that remembers what you write so that it can be OCR'd into computer text. This pen does a lot of other things as well, it's really nifty. I think it's targeted primarily at young teenage girls, but it fits my need. I've been looking for convenient ways to do some writing that winds up in my computer files. It's not always convenient to carry a laptop. Cell phones with keyboards are too cramped. The Leapfrog solution is cheap, under $100, but I could not believe I was going to give it a try. Most of my life, my handwriting has looked like the scribble you see above. My mother (as my wife reminded me), expected that computers would make handwriting obsolete. For many years, I have written (or printed) almost nothing other than my signature and occasional illegible notes. Could I learn to write - with the Leapfrog pen - anything legible enough to be converted to computer text? (Hint: I use an onscreen keyboard with my PDA.)

The answer is a surprising yes. I'm getting faster and more accurate, little by little. I still can't believe that the clear printing above is me. But it goes through Leafrog's OCR very well.

By the way: I learned about this pen on Episode 386 of the Daily Giz Wiz. Thanks, Leo and Dick!

Where's the Volume Control?

At the exercise place, there's a machine I like called the Cardio Wave. (Click on this URL, hover your mouse over 'photo gallery', and click the bottom picture to see the touch screen.) This machine is controlled by a touch screen that doubles as a TV set. You can have your controls and indicators all over the screen, or you can make it a pure TV (it gets about 20 cable channels), or you can mix, with the TV screen inside the control screen. When I started using the Cardio Wave, of course I overdid it, but eventually I figured out that I can use it enjoyably with the following settings: On the touchscreen, I press “quick start”, and then I set its two controls to 3.

Most people who use this sort of machine will plug their headphones into it, but I usually set the channel to news (with captions) and listen to a podcast. One day however, I really wanted to hear what the TV announcer was saying, so I plugged my headphone jack into the Cardio Wave. But before I put the buds to my ears, I wanted to make sure the volume was low. Where was the volume control? I determined that there was no physical button to press, nor dial to turn; it had to be on the touchscreen. But what would that be? There were touch buttons to change the channel, and touch buttons to set my two exercise controls.

On further inspection, I was embarrassed to discover that one of the two controls I had religiously set to '3' was the volume.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The difference between a hardware guy and a software guy:

Here's the difference between a hardware guy and a software guy:
I told a hardware designer that I had purchased the Leapfrog Pen. This is an actual pen that uses a built-in camera to record what I write.
"Have you taken it apart to see how it works?" he asked.
I replied, "If I took it apart, it would break."

Monday, March 24, 2008


Verizon has a new calling plan: make all the calls you want for $99.95 a month. I can't help it, this plan reminds me of a joke that ran through Walt Kelly's Pogo comic strips back in the 1950's. One hundred dollars at that time would be a lot more money today, even if you used it to buy electronics. In the Pogo strip, the three bats, Bewitched, Bothered and Bemildred, used to play cards. One of the cards in their deck was actually an ad that said: "Come to Meebles. All you can eat, $99.95."

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Hidden Password Fields:

If you use a lot of web sites, you probably have many occasions to enter a password. Password fields almost inevitably are “hidden”: you see a row of stars instead of what you type. When you are defining a new password for some site, you often see two hidden fields, challenging you to enter the same passphrase twice. In my opinion, that's particularly dumb. These hidden fields are prone to certain kinds of user error, so Microsoft Windows will warn you if a password fails “because” the caps-lock key is on.

How often is someone looking over your shoulder when you enter a password? The last time that happened to me was 2003.

There ought to be a button to optionally hide (or unhide) password fields. Today, when passwords should be many characters long, it's better to let you see what you're typing. The “obviousness” of hiding passwords is one of those leftover behaviors from the days of 1960's mainframes and expensive terminals that were used in exposed places at work.

These days, I use one website that offers me the choice: I can type my password in the hidden field or in an open field. So of course, on my home computer, I use the hidden field! Here's why: Windows remembers my password so that I do not have to retype it. But Windows will only remember my password for a hidden field, not for an open one.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Do you keep dead people in your address book?

I keep a few dead people in my address book. Do you? There's a downside: the small risk that you'll forget who's dead, and upset a grieving widow by mistake. But then there are those times you're reminded of the person you miss, when you go through your address lists.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Searching the Sky:

Have you discovered Google Sky? The user interface is quote familair, just like Google Maps. The default view shows you a swath of sky. You can move around, or take closer looks. Boy, would I have liked to be one of the guys driving around and taking those pictures! I zoomed in (which means, I guess, that I traveled far out) to a nice galaxy, and I searched for hotels.

I didn't find any.

Monday, March 17, 2008

In bad weather, are criminals lazy?

Twice recently on a Saturday night, some kids went into our garage and messed up our car interiors, looking for something to steal. Subsequently I've been careful about my carlocks on Saturday nights. But a few weeks ago, as I laid my head on the pillow, I realized the car doors were unlocked. "Not to worry," I told myself, "it's windy, cold and rainy. No criminals tonight."

In fact I really believe that criminals would rather do their nasty-work in good weather. On average, they are probably less industrious than most people, or fewer of them would be criminals. It bothers me a little that I can sell this line to myself so easily, but, hey, maybe I'm right.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

A Guy thing:

I'm not sure all guys are like this, but many are, and it's a particularly egregious fault of mine. For example, let's say that I mention to my wife, “I talked to Bill Q. today.”
“Oh,” she says, “what college did his daughter get into?”
“I didn't ask.”
“How are his wife's cancer treatments going?”
“I don't know.”
“Is his son still in jail?”
Just kidding, but you know what I mean. We had a 'guy' conversation, and I didn't ask about anything important. AND WHY IS THAT?

Well maybe I didn't ask any of those 'important' questions because I just happen to know better. To illustrate, let me tell you about the conversation I actually had with Bill last Friday. He and I have done some field work together, and we've talked a bit, but – and this is also a guy thing – we haven't kept in touch. I called him today because he might know something about a piece of software that was giving me trouble. He wasn't in his office, so dialed his cell phone:
“Hi, Bill here.”
“Bill, hi, this is Toby Robison, how are things?”
{Awful dead silence, a whole five seconds}
Now in my defense, I want you to know that the moment I said 'how are things,' I realized I had overstepped the bounds and done something terribly wrong. I just knew; it's a guy thing. So I recovered and continued our brief conversation:
“Bill, do you know much about your company's Qlap program? I copied it to another PC and it won't run.”
“You might have to install the Froybie program first.”
“Thanks, bye.”

Now for those of you too dense, or too family-oriented, to understand: I was lucky that Bill answered his cell phone at all. He might be in a meeting, or talking to a customer, or driving around a sweeping curve. He gave me a few moments, and it was my job to use them efficiently. And I do hope his son's out of jail by now, but I didn't have time to ask.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Coffee Coffee Coffee:

I occasionally visit one customer site where, in midmorning, my work-host prepares a pot of coffee and offers me a cup. I know that this coffee is going to taste absolutely awful – even by your standards – but to be sociable, I take a cup, drink some of it, and when no one's looking, I pour the rest on the ground. (And yes, I feel guilty about the ground.)

Sso I was delighted to hear this exchange on Tekkdif, or Teknikal DiffiKulties, a podcast I enjoy for its strange humor, unpredictable skits, and wild word play:
“Miss Childress, is there any of that coffee left?”
“Ahhhhh ... no sir.”
“Well then. You can call off the Hazmat team.”

We know exactly what he's talking about, don't we?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

You need good ID:

I found a story in Texas that is an absolutely fascinating insight into security issues. I think the story would apply to New Jersey, too. NJ requires about four pieces of ID to give you a driver's license. The state is really hard-nosed, and the license you get is pretty hard to copy illegally. But this Texas trick reported by Fox33 news cleverly defeats all that security.

The last step in getting a license is to get your photo taken and placed on the card. Then you get your license. Now what happens if they call you up for your photo, and you don't hear your name called? Or maybe you've stepped out. At that point, an underage teen who just happens to be waiting around steps up, pretends to be you, gets his picture taken, and gets your license. Now he can get into bars! (Except that now in Texas, if you look too young, they may doubt your driver's license, even if it has your picture on it. Because of this.)

Now obviously it's easy to fix this process. You ought to show really good ID to get your picture taken. But you already showed good ID to get into the process! How many times should you have to re-validate your raw ID documents to get a license?

Stop the presses! There's an easy fix to all this. When you first show your ID documents, to enter the process of getting a driver's license, they could give you a numbered card to show that you are who you are supposed to be. Then you can show that card before you take your photo. What I really like about this idea is that the card you carry around is likely to be much easier to forge or fake than your actual ID documents. Oh, never mind.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A hallful of little pictures:

Okay, no more politics.
We recently stayed at a motel that is relatively classy for its type. The chain tends to get that extra star or half-star over its competitors, and its motels tend to be well-tended and friendly. Still, when you step out of your motel room, on whatever floor, and look down that narrow hall, you see a dreadful repetition of simple elements unrelieved by any interesting variation of anything. Unless you look closely. Every room has a plaque with its number on it, plus a lovely photograph, about 2” x 3” in size.

A clever photographer prepared these pictures. Most of them suggest that they have been cropped from a larger picture whose background you really want to see. And many of the subjects resonate with us oldsters: a 1950's car radio; a little boy playing in hay; an old soda bottle; a very analog alarm clock; and so on. I enjoyed the pictures so much, that after walking the entire hall, I went up to the next floor to see the pictures up there.

I cannot tell you how deflating it was to discover that each floor has the same sequence of pictures.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Bombs for Homes:

I usually don't get this political, but I think I've discovered a dynamite strategy for Israel. That country seems to have stumbled into this strategy itself, but they've got to be systematic. Israel can announce that for every missile fired into their country, for every suicide attack, they will authorize the building of more homes in the west bank, in quantity according to the severity of the attack. Such a policy would make those attacks really unproductive. Israel's neighbors hate the prospect of Israeli expansion so much that they might prefer to curtail it by ... well, you know.

Monday, March 10, 2008


I've often been tempted to get a vanity plate. Sometimes I really thought that a certain word was really ME, and would look great on the back of my car. But: the extra cost, laziness, and the fear of identification always held me back. The fact is, there's going to be some moment when I really don't want the other driver to remember my license plate. How would you feel, and what would you do, if the driver that cut you off had a license plate you could remember for ever?

So let me suggest the vanity plate above. I think it says: Oh, I like you.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

My Favorite D&D Story:

This story happened to an excellent gamer I'll call Adam. Adam was visiting a friend who was DM for a D&D campaign with three other players. The players had been going on at this game for months, and their adventuring characters were very strong. For those of you who have arrived late to this party: The DM knew all about the world the players were adventuring in. Depending on what the players did, the DM confronted them with surprises, rewards, challenges and calamities, all according to his imagination as modulated by the extensive dicing rules of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.

As a visitor, Adam could not simply join the campaign, but there was plenty to kibbitz. At one point the party of three characters walked on a path along the edge of a mountain. They came around a bend and: there was a great giant! The DM turned to Adam. “Why don't you take the part of the giant?” Adam agreed. This appeared to be a fairly routine situation. A giant is large and powerful, but the three D&D characters had excellent gear, many skills, and plenty of magic on hand.

The DM consulted his dice and announced that the players were surprised by the giant, so the giant got to act first. “Adam, what do you do?”

“I overbear,” said Adam.

Overbear? What's that? (I must confess, one of the reasons I like this story is that I already knew about overbearing.) They all went scrambling to the DM manual, where I think Adam referred them to the small print on page 22. Gary Gygax had not just developed tables for combat between swords, halberds, sabers, pikes, shields, armor of all kinds, and even pitiful medieval pistols. He had also developed combat tables for fighting unarmed: wrestling, say, or boxing, or overbearing.

To 'overbear' is simply to fall upon your opponent. It's a good move if you have a big weight advantage, if, say, you're a giant, and your adversaries, standing right next to each other, are elvish or human. The DM consulted the overbear tables with his dice. He announced: “The members of the party are stunned. Adam, what does the giant do?”

Adam answered, “I pick each of them up and throw them off the cliff.”

Of course the characters all died falling off the cliff, ending a wonderful campaign that had occupied the four of them for months. It was a long, long time before any of them would speak to Adam again.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Gary Gygax has died:

Gary Gygax (pronounced “Guy-Gax” says the NY Times) died yesterday. He was only 69.

J. R. R. Tolkien opened the universe of fantasy realms to us. GG invented a wonderfully imagination-rich way for us to populate those realms, called “Dungeons and Dragons.”

Strangely, Gygax began as a table-top battler. These old-fashioned gamers would fight the Battle of Antietam, say, with model figures built to scale, following some game rules of combat. GG and his friends got to wondering what it would be like if their “realistic” warriors could do magic and cast spells, instead of shooting guns.

There are some pretty simple answers to that question (I mean, there are ways to make simple adjustments to your gaming rules to answer that question. See my UPDATE, below.). GG provided a simple example years later, when he invented a table-top football game, to be played between teams whose players had limited spell-casting abilities in addition to their more usual football skills. But what arose from those table-top battlers was a mighty deep answer: The invention of the Dungeon Master created a whole new type of play, in which one person spun and weaved a magical universe that the others explored.

The extremely detailed rules that GG and his coworkers developed and published -- the dungeon master rules, the player rules, the monster rules – these were not intended to stifle creativity, but to spur it, and to create a gaming world in which people could develop their fantasy characters and carry them from one gaming experience to another. At its best, we received a lot of wondrous wonder from Gygax. There could be boredom, frustration and sudden endings – it was all up to the players to supply the real magic – but magic there was. You could invent your own dungeon and play it with your friends, but you could also buy commercial adventures from Gygax's company, TSR, study them and play them. Who can forget module C2 with its chess room and its inverted-gravity tower? Or module S4; at a time when most Dungeon and dragon games took place underground, S4 featured sprawling wilderness adventure.

Gary Gygax, you had the most awfully convoluted style of writing, but many of us plowed into your turgid prose because there was so much to discover. I tell you what I'm going to do: I'll roll one D20 and see whether you still have to be dead.

(Tomorrow: my favorite D&D story.)

UPDATE: My wife pointed out in frustration that I provided no response to the question I raised above: What's a simple answer to the question: what if warriors could do magic and cast spells? To help my damaged brain, she also suggested a genuinely simple answer: Girls would play too.

Monday, March 03, 2008

In the Steam Room, I'm the Macho Guy:

I share the steam room with guys who swim twice as fast as I can, who lift two-hundred pound weights, who can run on a twenty-degree tilted treadmill much longer than I can walk on a flat one. But in the steam room, they're the wimps, and I'm the macho.

The steam comes out of a pipe at floor level. It's incredibly hot. Everyone draws his feet up when the steam pours, either lifting feet a few inches, or drawing their legs, scared-pussy style, up onto the tile bench. Not me! I'm convinced that that steam killed my toenail fungus. I leave my feet on the floor, in order to remain a better person, and now I'm used to the heat. So there.