Sunday, August 31, 2008

He stole my lane!

The pool where I lap-swim has five lanes. The most convenient lane, for those of us with bad backs and bad knees, is the one next to the steps leading down into the pool. Yesterday that lane was free, so I came down those steps and started splashing cold water on my head, preparing to take the plunge.

Just then a big old fellow descended the steps and swam away, in MY LANE! I was furious with him. It's easy for two people to share a lane, but he didn't ask, and anyway there were two empty lanes.

We're all club members here, so there's no point making fuss. I shifted to the next lane and started to swim.

When you're swimming many laps, you need something to think about, to make time fly. Boredom is the enemy of any repetitive exercise. Well I had something to think about this time! As I swam my first laps, I kept glancing at my interloper, and mentally grumbling. But an unexpected thing happened: he swam to the far end; he swam back to the stairs; he walked out of the pool and departed, after less than three minutes in the water.

I swiched lanes, even though I had to "break stride" to do it. I wanted my lane back!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Changing Horses in Midstream:

I started to call the Princeton Medical Center. Here's what their contact page says:

1.888.PHCS4YOU (1.888.742.7496)

Those letter-mnemonics are easier to remember, but harder to dial. I had dialed 1.888.PHCS4 when I noticed the numbers in parenthesis. Just in time, I resisted the urge to dial -496, because I realized that the two numbers are different!!! I'm sure they both work. But I've never before seen an all digit phone number paired with a "letter-heavy" phone number, where they weren't the same. I finished my dialing with -YOU. Weird.

By the way, I'm okay.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Hopper Site Endangered! So what?

A New York Times story today reports that new construction on Cape Cod (Truro, Mass) may endanger, even obliterate, a barren view that may have inspired some of Edward Hopper's paintings. Here's the story. A couple plans to build a mansion in the way, and some of the neighbors are complaining. But if you take the idea of protecting such views to their natural extreme, it's ridiculous.

Now I must admit that protecting scenery that has inspired artists might have its good side. Consider David Roberts, whose many, many paintings of Jerusalem and its surrounds are well-known. Preserving all the views that inspired him would imply allowing only about 1,000 people to live within ten miles of Jerusalem. I have no idea how that would affect Middle-Eastern politics, but surely the effect would be profound.

Thanks goodness Rembrandt never found time to come to Manhattan and paint its lovely rural landscapes; we might have had to preserve those scapes even today. Remember the Red Apple's motto: If you can make it here, then Rembrandt must have failed to paint what you're building over.

And what of El Greco's View of Toledo? How much of Toledo do we need to rip down to restore the view that inspired him? And then there's Vermeer's View of Delft. If any artist's inspired view was ever worth preserving, this one is it.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Would I like to buy another watch? has software at its web site that tries to figure out what I might want to buy. It gives me lots of suggestions. I remember when I bought a really abstruse programming book on general search patterns. Amazon told me that people who bought this book also bought ... the first three Harry Potter books.

Right now, Amazon's recommendation logic has gotten quite annoying. I recently bought a watch. Now, I'm getting email suggestions for great watch bargains. The suggestions are well-targeted to me, except that – Hello?? Amazon?? I HAVE a watch. How many do I need?

Dear Amazon, please suggest more watches to me, in about six years. I might need one by then.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Year-2006 Technology:

A recent ad from Dell computer told me that they are giving away prizes in an online contest. They invited me to enter the contest every day to the end of September. I thought that would be a good idea. Entering the contest took five minutes, with a lot of lines to fill out. That does it, I thought. I'm not entering this contest again, too much work.

Two minutes later I got an Email informing me that I had won one of their fifth prizes, a PowerVault RD1000. Now if you're a lot like me, you would naturally have two thoughts:
  1. Isn't it nice to get instant notification that you've won something?
  2. What the heck is a PowerVault RD1000?
The latter question turned out to be very interesting, since Dell has chosen to use one identifying symbol for a vast line of products. I exchanged many emails with their prize people, and eventually discovered that I had won a backup disk system consisting of a chassis with a USB interface, and an 80/160MB cartridge. (Let's just call it an 80MB cartridge, because the higher number refers to the estimated drive size if you compress everything.)

Now it happens that I recently decided I need 160MB of disk drive backup for my audio files. There's a very sweet recent product that's portable and handy, the Western Digital Passport USB drive. (Several other companies, such as Iomega, make similar drives.) My first reaction was great joy; I did not have to buy that drive, I would use my prize instead.

Except ...

Well first of all, note that the prize drive is half the space I think I need. Disk Cartridge prices are very high for the RD1000, and prices for the Passport drive are remarkably low. The bottom line here is that disk drive prices drop very, very fast over time. The RD1000, a year-2006 product, cannot easily compete with newer disk drives. Now I'm obligated to pay taxes on my prize if I receive it, and its estimated value is $299. The tax on this drive compares closely with the price of newer disk drives, and the newer drives are likely to be more convenient to carry around and use on multiple systems.

This is the most valuable prize I've ever won in a contest, and I turned it down. I'm going to buy a 160MB drive instead.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Counting to a Billion:

In 1964, I wrote many programs for an IBM 7094 mainframe. This was a wonderful machine. It could hold 160,000 characters in its memory, although some of that memory was reserved for hold a small operating system. It could add two numbers together in just over one microsecond. We made that 7094 leap and dance in many different ways.

In those days, you submitted your programming "job" as a deck of punched cards. Some hours later, your card deck, and the computer output, appeared in an "output bin." There was one bin for every letter of the alphabet, because a lot of people submitted jobs to that one mainframe. Operators ran the decks through the computer as fast as they could. Some jobs, of course, took longer than others.

One day my wife and I were talking about counting up to large numbers. One way a growing child discovers mortality is through the realization that in one's entire life, there are numbers you cannot count up to. Counting "one, two, three, four, etc., ... one billion" is right out. That's when I noted that our 7094 could count to a billion in less than an hour. Wow!

Pretty soon we decided to do it. The only drawback was that computer time for the entire university was precious, so I did not want anyone to know what I was doing. If the computer sat in a tight loop adding one to a running total for a thousand seconds, I would probably be caught and banished from the engineering center. So I wrote a program that ran for less than two minutes. The program read in a punch card to tell it what number to start counting from, and it punched a card at the end of the run to use as input to the next run. I submitted my program once or twice a day, and proudly saved all the outputs for years.

After a few few days of these runs -- we might have been up to 403,682 or so -- Tony, the head operator, took me aside.
"You've got a funny program that sits there for two minutes and seems to do nothing. Are you sure it doesn't have a bug?"
"I'll take a look at it," I said, thankful I hadn't quite been busted. I knew I had to change the program so that it looked busy. The problem was that it sat in a tight "add one" loop, so the program counter LED display on the computer console did not change, and the other displays that showed computer activity did not change either.

I modified the program. I made it hundreds of instructions long -- most of them "add one" instructions. But among the adds, I sprinkled computer instructions to make all of the console lights turn on and off. My modified program escaped criticism, and it actually counted faster. The 7094 had "lookahead logic", and it was able to process about 1.5 of my addition instructions at once. (The simpler program, in its three instruction loop, prevented any "lookahead" from occurring.)

So: we counted to a billion. Pretty neat!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Cars are getting too quiet?

Scientific American has an article by Sarah Simpson, with a new worry about hybrid cars. You may not have begun to worry about this one yet. The question is, are hybrid cars too quiet to be safe for pedestrians? The article takes a "wait and see" posture. If you were reading my blog four years ago, you know that for me, car engines became dangerously quiet 56 years ago. With my passion for biking through intersections by relying on sound alone to tell me if they were empty, I was lucky to survive the quieter engines that Detroit turned out in 1952.

I'm over the hump on this issue. Bring on the quieter cars, and - maybe - quieter towns and cities as well.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Free Business Cards:

I ordered some simple business cards so that I could show people how to find my novel online. I was attracted to an ad for 250 "free" business cards. I knew they couldn't be free. I guessed the trick was that they would have a high shipping charge. Little did I know.

First, the website walked me through a design of my card. That was very nice. Then we started the ordering process. Would I like more cards, or better paper, or address labels to go with the cards, or magnets, or pens? All these items were customized to the design I had chosen. There were dozens of optional categories, pages of addiitonal options. Would I like a rubber stamp? Would I like to buy some magazines while I was at it? Would I like printing on the back of the card? Would I like faster shipping?

And last, but not least, get this: Would I like a fully functional, customizable website, designed to match the business card? What an incredible option! I resisted temptation over and over. (Frankly, I think it makes more sense to buy business cards to match my website, not the other way round.)

Shipping was $5.45. I definitely have to explain about shipping. For $5.45, they proposed to take TWENTY-ONE DAYS to ship the cards to me. Shipping times that you would call "reasonable" cost more. Twenty-one days, that's slow shipping. The temptation to pay more for fast shipping was very great, but I figured I could wait them out. I thought it was just a bluff. After all, how do you make a shipment take 21 days, send it around the world by rickshaw?

I purchased these 'free' cards on July 22. On July 31, VistaPrint notified me that the cards have shipped. The cards arrived August 9. I knew it! I called their bluff. That's a lot better than 21 shipping days, and they look good.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Over and Over ...

In Willam Goldman's novel Boys and Girls Together, there's a writer named Adam who has to decide which he should write first: the great American novel, or a potboiler that will make him rich. He decides to do the potboiler first, and there's a mighty painful scene where his publisher's agent tells him he absolutely won't publish the book.

Maybe Adam was lucky. I'm currently recording my novel as an audio book. I did not see this coming, but the main effect of this effort is that I have to read it, and hear it, over and over. I read each page three times before recoding it, and I may record some scenes many times to get them right. After listening to, and editing, every sentence, I listen to the final cut. When the final cut is okay, I submit it to PodioBooks. They modify my tracks a little, adding an intro and an outro. I have to listen to their modified version to make sure it hasn't been munged. Their copying process is excellent, but in fact they have had to apply it to my chapters three times, which means I get to hear each chapter three more times.

I can't imagine how awful I'd feel by now if I didn't actually enjoy listening to what I wrote. No potboilers for me!

Thursday, August 07, 2008

2-way, 3-way, 4-way, 5-way, all-way!

For many years I enjoyed stopping at 4-way stop signs, and their less common 3- and 5-way siblings. (In case any of you have missed it, the idea of these signs is that everybody stops at the intersection; each car enters the intersection in the order that the cars arrived.)

Now, I'm seeing “all-way” stop signs. These are clearly an improvement over the other signs because they solve a manufacturing problem: you make all your signs the same, instead of guessing how many you will need for each of 3, 4 and 5-way intersections. Guessing how much of each option to stock is a bane of marketing and manufacturing.

So why didn't the signs always say “all-way”? Perhaps it took a genius to think of this simplification, but I think that what we see here is an incremental improvement, where the two steps were required. I'm guessing that, thirty years ago, signs saying “all-way” would not have made as much sense. When you know that these signs are replacing the 4-way (etc.) signs, it's obvious what they mean.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Who Died Today?

When I was young, I found it morbid and bizarre that my parents read the obituaries in the New York Times. Many of their friends did, too. Several of them assured me that I, too, would read the obits when I got older.

Son-of-a-gun, they were right. I'm spellbound by the big stories of excellent people who have died, and I'm happiest when they die at ages thirty years and more beyond mine. And of course I always keep an eye peeled for a familiar name. You never know, these days.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Demonstrating against the high cost of gasoline:

As the price of gas rose, there were protests against the new high prices, especially by truckers and those whose livelihood is directly affected. Unless you believe that there's some sort of conspiracy to raise gas prices, you're liable to feel, as I do, that such protests are useless. For example, imagine that a day comes whmn there are a thousand gas gallons left in the entire world; what would be the point of protesting their price?

Nonetheless, there is a situation where protests against high gas prices make sense, and I believe that such demonstrations have already occurred in Europe. We have to mix one more ingredient into the stew: a high tax on gas. Many people believe that high gas taxes force people to conserve, and are thus beneficial. But in a country with high gas taxes, why not protest to lower them, when the price of gas arcs up? I think it's ironic that a well-intended effort to force gas conservation can foster well-intended gas price protests.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Soap Dish Slides in Motels:

You probably all have had this experience, unless you prefer liquid soap: You're staying in hotel where the shower/bath enclosure is all one gigantic piece of plastic. That enclosure includes a little soap dish, maybe two, that was designed by a sadist. Put your bar of soap there, and it slides right down onto the bathtub floor.

I made many infuriating attempts to balance the soap perfectly before giving up. It fell to the floor every time. What crazy person designed those soap dishes?

But at last I found a solution that I'm happy to share with you. Wet a washcloth, fold it up, and you can balance that on the soap dish. Then put your soap on the washcloth.