Thursday, May 29, 2008

Awesome User Error:

This is going to be a very confusing story about an awesome error I inflicted on myself.

I've been testing a program whose name I'm probably not permitted to tell you, but the name is similar to “Task Manager”. You're probably familiar with the Task Manager program, you can use it to turn your PC off, to list the processes that are running, to see how much CPU time you're using, and even to “kill” programs that won't quit when you want them to.

I've been fixing a bug that works like this: my own program tries to quit, but a little piece of it keeps running. I can see, in Task Manager, that my program has a running “process”. My program won't start again unless that process quits. The worst part of the bug was that sometimes Task Manager couldn't “kill” it. I would have to reboot the PC to get rid of it. So you can imagine that each time my program quit, I looked anxiously at the list of processes in Task Manager, to see if my program was gone.

This was a very rare issue until, sometime today, my brain fused the names of my program with “Taskmgr” -- that's how Task Manager appears in the “process” list -- and I started running Task Manager to see whether “Task Manger” was running.

Now of course it always was! So I thought that my bug had become repeatable. Worse, when I told Task Manager to kill Task Manager, the strangest thing happened: Task Manager disappeared right off the screen. And if I ran it again to see if it had managed to kill MY program (which wasn't even running anymore), why ... there was Task Manager again, right in its list of running processes!

The first time I told it to kill itself (thinking I was telling it to kill MY program), I was astounded when Task Manager disappeared. “WOW!” I said, “My program is so hard to kill that Task Manager dies, trying to kill it.” Hours later, the silver coin dropped, and I realized that every time Task Manager had disappeared, my program had not been running, and my bug was not happening.

It's a peculiar thing, though, that Task Manager is allowed to kill itself. I'll bet the person who wrote that program thought hard about whether to allow it to commit suicide.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Men will cook if there's danger involved --- etc.

I believe it is Rita Rudner who advises that "Men will cook when there's danger involved." Some men (me, for example) enjoy a few other things if there's danger involved.

I was working at the small airport earlier this week. There's a lot of expansion-type construction there. As a result, the walk between the plane in the hangar and my development PC takes a long, circuitous route, unless I go through the construction zone; so that's what I do.
First, I open a door that has a long slit cut in it for a window. (Pay attention to this detail, it will be important later.) Then I look both ways - you never know what might come swinging through the air at a construction site - and I cross one corner of the site. Then I walk through a wide doorway that has no door, and I'm near the plane.

Going back is a little more interesting. First I look through the doorless doorway -- you never know what might come swinging through the air at a construction site - and I cross my corner of the site. The door with the slit in it is locked, but only on this side. I reach through the slit, angle my arm way down, unlock the door, and I'm out.

I did want to ask the construction workers why the door was locked only on the inside, but I was afraid I knew what they would say: "It's to keep fools like you from hurting yourself."

Well ... Eventually, I did ask one of the construction workers:
"Do you happen to know why this door is locked only on the inside?"
He chuckled, said "Yep," and walked away. Wrong question, I guess. I always was a good setup man.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Disappointed in Sirius Radio:

About nine months ago, I rented a car that had a few Sirius radio channels. I listened to it for about ten hours, ignoring all my favorite podcasts, before it began to pall. There were three humor channels: raunchy, classic, and current. I really like standup, and I discovered a lot of good material. But you can't spend your life just listening to standup.

Last week I got another car with Sirius radio. One hundred Sirius channels, this time. A few of those carry music I really like, but once again, I checked out the humor. I guess that there's an awful lot more good music than good humor, because the focus of the Sirius humor channels has changed, and they are strip mining, I would say, pretty shallow veins this month. There's a raunchy channel that utilizes very little material from the great comedians of the '90's. The high point here was a very, very long and clever rendition of the 'Aristocrats' joke by Gilbert Gottfired. Then there was a blue collar humor channel, and, I'll call it, an esoteric humor channel. The guys working the esoteric channel spoke both very loud and very soft. There was no way I could set the volume to catch any humorist's every word, a great disappointment.

But the main thing I can say about the three humor channels is that they are constantly interrupted by ads and station breaks, and these are so much louder that I had to keep adjusting the volume. A pain! It's really outrageous for a radio station to turn up the volume for ads and breaks, especially a pay station. Sirius: I think you're losing it.

Friday, May 23, 2008

There might have been a woman in room 220, too!

Okay, I've worked up the nerve to tell you how I came to remember my mother's story, that I recounted yesterday. I've just returned from a business trip. On the first night I stayed in Maryland in a nice hotel, in room 223. On the remaining nights I was at a nice place in Virginia. When I arrived, the elevator was not working, so I begged for, and got, a first floor room: 120. Wednesday night, neither of my electronic keys worked. I pushed each one into the slot of room 220 several times, but thank goodness, nothing happened. Okay, I told myself, I'll just have to go back down the elevator, lugging my heavy laptop, and tell them I need new electronic keys. Wait a minute! I don't need the elevator to get to my room! I'm in room 120. And all those memories came flooding back ...

Ohhhhh mom, I'm glad I don't have to tell you: Mr. Boss wasn't the only one.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

There's a Woman in my Room!

Straight out of school, my mother worked as an economist in Washington, D.C. Her boss – he must have been able to do many things right to be a boss – had, she said, the worst memory you could possibly imagine. He was also, I believe, just a teeny bit unobservant. She told only one story to illustrate how strange he was, but it was pretty convincing. I had forgotten this story for most of fifty years, but it has returned to me, and I'm delighted to share it with you now.

Mr. Boss often took business trips to Manhattan. He had a favorite hotel there, near Columbus Circle. For reasons that will gradually come clear, I shall call it: Hotel Bee. His secretary was well aware of his preference, and routinely reserved a room for him there.

On this particular occasion, Mr. Boss arrived in Manhattan, went to hotel in Columbus Circle, and – can you believe it? They had no record of his reservation. He raised a holy stink. The hotel was crowded, but eventually they found a room for him. Let's call it room #559. Mr. Boss parked his stuff and went out to dinner.

After dinner, he went to his beloved Hotel Bee, took the elevator to the fifth floor, opened room #559 with his key, and – you won't believe this – there was a woman in his room, and all his stuff was gone. Worse, it looked like she was actually staying there, there were women's things instead of his own.
After he demanded to know what she was doing in his room; after she demanded to know what he meant, barging into her locked room; they both went to the manager and raised a holy stink. There ensued a period of awesome confusion and shouting, which will make perfect sense to you when you know how they sorted things out.

When Mr. Boss had arrived in New York, he had gone to hotel Aye, which is quite close to hotel Bee. Of course, they had had no reservation for him. Mr. Boss might have noticed that he was in the wrong hotel, they don't all look the same. But after dinner, Mr. Boss went to Hotel Bee, where he did have a reservation. He might have noticed that he was in a different hotel. But he did not. He might have gotten a clue that something was wrong when hotel Aye's key failed to work in room #559 of Hotel Bee. But that's the strangest part of this story: somehow, it did.

We can draw an inference from this anecdote, and I think it supports my mother's point: you have to be a pretty strange person to fall into stories like this.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

This item is really about safe driving!

Today I'm going to mention computer role playing and urinal games, but please bear in mind that I have only one goal in mind: safe driving.

We begin by observing that putting games inside urinals seems to make bathrooms cleaner. A number of experiments along these lines are happening in Europe and Asia, but not, I believe, in our own relatively prudish United States. Here's an example: giving men something to aim at makes a difference.
If you've played computer games, you probably know that as you travel about, you must keep your eyes peeled for valuable items to pick up. They could be hidden anywhere, and you learn to react to the slightest visual cues along the way.
Also, I'm sure you'll agree that superhighways of the future will be heavily networked, and your future auto will have a fancy computer system that communicates with the highway's computers. All of these computers will interact with you by placing displays on your front windshield, since that's a great way to make you see warnings abot road problems.
Finally, I'm sure you'll agree that the safest drivers on fast highways will be those who are staying alert for the slightest sign of trouble: in front of them, to the rear, to the sides; and well in advance.

To put this all together, imagine that your toll for driving a super highway is discounted by the number of, let's call them "brabs", that you see along the way. The highway and your car's master computer cooperate with your windshield to make it seem to you that brabs are hiding along the road. And of course you watch alertly for these brabs and click some switch when you see them, to lower your tolls. Your general alertness thus contributes to overall road safety. I think this is a win-win idea, and I hope to see it in my lifetime.

As an added benefit: if you fail to find even the easiest brabs, a police car may stop you to see whether you're half asleep. And if you find hundreds of non-existent brabs, you might be checked for LSD.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Under ...

When you're driving through a long tunnel, and you have a modern GPS, then that GPS will be delighted to draw a picture for you -- with lots of bright blue -- to show you that you are under a great deal of water.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Skillful Coffee Cooling:

I recently posted about the Java Wand, a clever, compact device that makes good coffee and is easy to travel with. I complained that there was a slight issue: When the coffee's hot, you suck hot coffee right into your mouth. But it turns out that I merely needed to learn to use the wand properly. You suck up a strawful of coffee, hold that coffee in the glass straw a few moments to cool, then suck it into your mouth. This experience is, I feel, more pleasurable than taking those first few hot sips from a teaspoon. In fact, it's very effective to use the same company's Tea Wand to cool a hot cup of coffee.

In the past, when I was in a hurry, I used the salesman's trick to cool the coffee: I dropped ice into it. But the “Health tea Wand” is better. It's a glass straw whose bottom acts as a glass filter to keep out tea leaves. It also keeps out most coffee grounds, enabling me to suck on the hottest coffee, keeping each mouthful in the glass a moment to cool it. I'm delighted with the WisdomWands products.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

My remarkable coffee grinder:

I have the simplest sort of coffee grinder. It looks roughly like this. The unit in the picture claims a $50 list price, but I bought mine in 1985 for $10. There are a lot of knocks on this kind of grinder. It can burn the grounds, and these cheap grinders don't last very long. Except for mine.

When I bought it, I could see that the grinder's weak point was its easily overheated motor. Metal fatigue usually ruins little hot-running devices. So I decided never to run it more than ten seconds at a time. These days I run it for 9 seconds, give it 9 minutes rest, then another 9 seconds, and maybe one more such cycle, to grind my coffee beans. The unit still works.

Actually it broke today, but for a fascinating reason: the a/c power cord wore out. Both the insulation and the wire broke. To me, this particular problem validates the way I've use the grinder. Its designers never expected it to last so long that it would need a higher quality power cord.
I fixed it for another $5. I doubt it will last another twenty years; but I doubt I'll be grinding coffee in twenty years, anyway.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Feeble GPS:

If you're driving through a long tunnel, and your car sports a modern GPS, why, then that GPS will be happy to draw a picture for you, to show you that you're under a great body of water. I've just completed my first serious immersion in GPS-life, driving 700 miles in a rental car over roads familiar and unknown. I have an awful lot of impressions to sort out, such as the fact that I hate to be told to "drive straight in 1.8 miles" while trying to hear an audio book.

But here's what you should bear in mind about today's driver-GPS systems: They are feeble inventions of great ingenuity. In the future, we'll look back at them, and we'll laugh.

A GPS ought to be tightly- coupled with its automobile. Many quirks of its user interface derive from the GPS computer having so little idea of, or knowledge of, what's going on. The next time your'e bored, imagine what a GPS would be like if it had these capabilites:
  • It would know your location to within an accuracy of one foot; it would know if you were in the correct lane.
  • It would monitor the turn signals; it would know if you intended to make a turn as instructed.
  • It would be able to operate the turn signals for you, if you preferred not to signal manually.
  • It could advise you when to brake, or that you're going too fast, given the curviness of the road.
  • It would know whether you had enough gas to reach your destination, so it would know when to direct you to a price-competitive gas station.
  • My GPS asked me whether I wanted the shortest route, the route with the most super highways, or the route with the least super highways. Over time, this list of alternatives will expand to include choices of familiar/unfamilar routes, fuel-efficient routes, and (I think some high end systems have these): routes to avoid bad weather, construction, or traffic jams.
  • A GPS that knows the weather and the traffic can tell me when it's advisable to turn cruise control on and off.

I believe there are already GPS systems that handle audio input. This business of pressing buttons to slo- ... -wly program an address is ridiculous. My GPS warned me not to program it while driving. It then required me to press several buttons (while driving) to confirm I was resuming the last driving plan. GPS systems that take weather and construction schedules into account can do something else that's rather clever: they can suggest what time of day I should start driving, for best time and weather. And so on, and so on, and so on.

Today's GPS developers have been ingenious, doing so much with so little. But what we're enjoying is only a primitive new technology.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Does anybody remember Ex-Cell-O?

For many years (including the 1960's), Ex-Cell-O corporation held a patent on virtually every paper milk carton produced. Other liquids used the same carton and licensed the same patent. I often noticed Ex-Cell-O's patent on the cartons. Perhaps you didn't, even if you were old enough to drink from their cartons. I had my own painful reasons for noticing them. I believe the company still exists, and this may be part of them.

Here's a story about the milk carton that discusses Ex-Cell-O's role.

In the 1960's and '70's, we believed that Ex-Cell-O had many subsidiary companies. They were making all these $$ from their patent, and they wanted to use that capital to grow into a giant, before their patent lapsed. I suspect that they had the miserable experience of watching some of their ventures fail. The one that affected me was: Bryant.

Bryant manufactured drums and disk drives. One of their units held the astounding amount of 40 MB. (That was astounding for 1971, anyway.) The drive was about 5 feet long, 3 feet wide and 3 feet high. Inside that rectangular frame was an axle that spun very fast, twirling a few dozen platters that were each large enough to be used for coffee tables. The company I worked at (and owned stock in) relied on Bryant, and only Bryant, for their massive disk storage. But at some point a maintenance problem developed with these drives, and their downtime was a killer for us.

Our most memorable Bryant moment was when the drive train on one of these giant boxes froze. The entire, enormous box jumped off the ground, flew through the air, and landed three feet closer to one maintenance guy who watched it jump at him in horror. I suspect that Bryant was not a very successful way for Ex-Cell-O to spend their milk money.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Cheap Self Serve New Jersey Gas:

Here's another story that I'm going to end by saying, “I don't really want to know.”

On the way to work, I pass an intersection with three gas stations. That's – clearly – one too many. The station with the most expensive gas has gone out of business a few times in the last few years. The other two stations sell lesser-known brands at lower prices. Let's call the shaky one the “MoTeXarco” station. Currently it's easy to see that MoTeXarco is shut down, because those tall signs that advertise gas prices have no numbers on them. Yet a few days ago, when I pulled up to the red light, I glanced over to see a well-dressed gentleman at one of the pumps. He looked like he had just finished serving himself some gas, as he put away the pump-hose and his wallet. (Self-service is illegal in NJ, you're required to wait for the attendant to put your credit card, or his own card, into the pump.)

And I started to think ...

Maybe the guy really did just fill his tank. If he did, he used gas that was many weeks old. And the price must have been many weeks old as well. He could have saved fifty cents a gallon or more. Could it be? Can you close a station and forget to turn off the pumps? Of course, he might have driven into the station, tried to pump some gas, and failed, but who knows?

I'm tempted to find out. It would just take a minute to pull up to MoTeXarco's pumps and see if they're working. But even using my credit card, I would probably break a dozen laws or more. And if I got caught? It's not worth the risk. And anyway, I'd rather dream about this incident; I don't really want to know.

Monday, May 12, 2008

This is my 1,234th post in Precision Blogging. Scribble, scribble, eh? Today: the Pulse pen:

If you've started reading my blog recently, I recommend the archives. They're not too shabby.

Today, I'm going to critique, without having seen or used it, the Pulse smart pen. According to a David Pogue column, Jim Marggraff, the genius who brought us the Fly Fusion Pen, has taken a great step forward with the Pulse. Here's my bottom line: I think the Pulse is very exciting. I wish I had one, but I don't want to buy it. I wish it luck, but I think that small computers will compete against it too well. Now here are the details.

I love the Fly Fusion Pen. See my blog entry about it, here. It was hard for me to decide to buy it, because that product seemed to be aimed at pre-teen girls. But I was right, it's great for adults, too. The Fly Fusion Pen is a computer that you can use, very discreetly, to take notes for later computer processing. You can use it where you might embarrass people by typing on your PC, or where you do not want to lug your heavy, bulky PC. Both the Fly Fusion and the Pulse do a lot of other things as well, and I think that's part of the problem. (More on this below.)

As soon as I saw Pogue's column, a single question popped into my mind: did I make a terrible mistake, buying too soon? I decided that I prefer the Fly Fusion Pen to the Pulse. The reasons are simple: The Pulse would cost another $50 to $100 (the Devil is in the accessories); the Fly fusion Pen hit a great price point for me, under $100. And the Pulse offers much too much; I don't want to pay for its solutions to problems I don't have. (I don't mind that extra hour I spent reading the Fly Fusion Pen's documentation, before settling on the four simple commands I would need. But complexity brings ... well ... more complexity.)

The Pulse looks like a terrific item. It's classy. It has an OLED display. It records audio. Executives and college students will be proud to carry it. The fact that it can play audio back also means you can use menus with it (like the Fly pen)! You can tap through a series of choices you do not see, and the audio speaker will tell you what they are, to let you select one. The Pulse has two amazing features lacking on the Fly Pen:
  • It has an Open Platform software interface. Developers are encouraged to extend it. Who knows what they'll do with it? In time, this product could morph into something wonderful and unexpected.
  • You can associate recorded audio with written notes. If you are going to record a lot of audio, that can be a fantastic feature. This feature caught David Pogue's imagination, and that contributed to the Pulse getting “good ink” in the New York Times.

The second half of David Pogue's review covers the pains of complexity in the Pulse product. The Fly Fusion pen has many of the same learning issues, but let me assure you: if you know what you want to do with the pen, it will be easier to learn than Pogue suggests.

Now here's my jaundiced view: In the long run, most complex things that you can do with the Pulse pen will compete against small computers. The general purpose computer almost always wins. Very specialized computers (like fancy synthesizers) carve out unbeatable niches, but usually you are better off owning a computer that can do hundreds of kinds of tasks. Many people who want to combine written notes and audio can do that on their PCs. As an open-api platform, the Pulse will be looking for exciting niches where our ever-shrinking ultra small PCs cannot compete. I wish it luck in finding them.

Otherwise, I'd like to see Smart Pens focus on what they can do best: write computer readable text. I don't want to pay extra for all the software development that enables the pens to do too many other things; and there probably IS a cost there in the base retail price. The Fly Fusion pen can actually behave like a synthesizer. Someone wrote software to support this feature, and I'm paying for part of that feature, even though I do not want it.

By the way, be warned: you need special paper for these pens to write on. (The paper's cheap, you just have to be able to carry it.) The paper is special. When I write in their notebook, the dots on the page tell my Fly Fusion pen what PAGE I'm on.

A handsome pen that makes no noise and discreetly writes info for me to upload: If the price is right, that's the specialized computer that a generalized PC can't match.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Infernal Progress Bar:

Just once in my programming career, I wrote a program to install some software. (In fact, it was one of the toughest types of installation: the video driver for the main CRT.) Every install program shows a progress bar so that you can see how the installation is going. I took this bar very seriously. The files that an install program installs are compressed, but I found that the rate of install progress was directly related to the size of the uncompressed files. I built into my install compilation, the knowledge of how many bytes had to be installed, and I used that figure to produce a pretty accurate and reassuring progress bar.

That is so rare.

I'm, sure you've see progress bars that creep from about zero to fifteen percent; they hover there for awhile and suddenly: bang, the install is done. And you've seen bars that expand from 0 to 100 percent several times during an install, without a clue how many times the bar is going to fill. Having paid my dues here, I'm contemptuous of all these lousy progress bars. If you're going to display one, make it real!

I recently watched a software install that hits a new low. I suspect that the programmer in this case was himself subjected to so many terrible progress bars that he had no idea what they were. During his install, a black smudge moves back and forth on the progress bar, back and forth, back and forth. It doesn't show progress at all; although it does provide some confidence that the installer program has not died. Now really ...

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Honk Honk! (Oops)

I often drive through a dangerous intersection. There's a delayed green light, and while cars are allowed to drive toward me, pedestrians step off the curb and cross in front of my car. They look up and see I have a red light, so they assume they must have the green, and they are oblivious of the cars coming straight toward me, and them. These careless, unobservant people annoy me, even when they are not talking to their cellphones.

Recently I honked at a woman crossing in front of my car. As she turned to stare at me, I realized that I really had the red light; she was entitled to cross. How to diffuse an embarrassing situation?

I did what I imagine any of you would do: I waved to her. She gave me a puzzled glance, waved back, and completed her crossing.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

The problem is: no problem

I'm struggling to get a large computer program to work in an unusual setting, so the error message I got is intended for astute developers, not ordinary users. Still, considering how I got it, I think ANYONE could find themselves facing this error message. It wasn't very helpful. My program pulls together many other programs, including parts of a Microsoft framework, and libraries from a vendor. There seems to be an incompatibility somewhere. In any case, this is what some part of that framework, or that vendor library, said to me, just before killing my program. It popped up a message box. The title of the message box was:

Problem 5

The message itself was:

The operation completed successfully.

We don't know what that means.

By the way, I made a wonderful typo when I composed this blog entry. Originally I wrote: "It pooped up a message box."
I corrected my spelling, but frankly, that's a better description of how I felt.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Please hold and li-ten to the nigce mu'ic:

Maybe your cell phone has much better sound than mine. But I think I'm talking about a general problem. There are many phone numbers in this world that will put you on hold for awhile, and play nice music to pacify you until your desired human picks up. Some even play my favorite sort, classical music. The music sounds nice on my land line. On my cell phone, it sounds just awful.

These days, most people on hold are listening to their cell phones. Telephone systems have to adjust to this, and play “on-hold” sounds that will come through nicely on a cell phone. It might be a good idea to abandon music altogether, and give us stand-up comedians instead.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

A Wedding? Or a spelling correction?

I apologize in advance. This is going to be complicated, especially since I've changed the name AND the nationality.

Our Wellness club has a bunch of trainers that we can work with when we choose. There's a wall dedicated to them, with pictures and brief CVs. Recently the wall was revised. The staff has changed, and everyone has a new photo. And I noticed that the spelling of one trainer's name has changed.

Now suppose it had changed from Cary Ravnaralescu to Cary Smith. I would assume that she's gotten married (or divorced.) Or suppose her name changed from Cary Ravnaralescu to Cary Ravnoralescu. I'd assume that at last an annoying spelling error has been corrected.

But in fact, the new spelling changes a fistful of letters in the middle of her name: from Cary Ravnaralescu to Cary Ravloborsescu. So it looks like a spectacular spelling mistake has been corrected at last; or else she has married (or divorced) someone from the Old Country. I wonder which it is, but I'm not going to ask. I'd rather savor the question than know.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Nokia n800: Recharge time:

This blog item is a public service. I'm replacing my P-a-l-m P-D-A with a Nokia n800. The first thing you have to do with an n800 is to recharge the battery. The documentation warns you NOT to overcharge, but it does not tell you how long it takes to charge up. (Worse, the n800 doesn't seem to tell you when it's fully charged, if you charge the battery it while the unit is turned off.)

I did the obvious thing: I went on the web and searched for advice on Recharging my n800, n800 recharge time, time to recharge a Nokia n800, n800 battery recharge time, recharging n800 ... you get the idea. All I got were lots of comments about how long the unit operates BETWEEN recharges, and also one article – repeated a hundred times at least – about when you do not need to recharge your unit. (I'm misquoting this last quote on purpose, to make it easier for people who search for battery recharge info to find MY entry!)

My initial, approximately full recharge of the Nokia n800 battery took less than 90 minutes. There! This info has now been placed on the web as a public service.