Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Greatest Error Messages:

Technologizer had an article on what are claimed to be the 13 greatest error messages of all time. Some of my favorites are missing from the list, of course. The web 404 error is claimed as the most important error, since its ubiquitousness accompanied the world-wide spread of the web itself. I would put this message as a close second:


That's what the control terminal at Three Mile Island displayed when the software was overwhelmed by error messages of a melt-down. I imagine the terminal operator shouting, "Can you be more specific?"

Here are two other messages that Technologizer somehow missed:

"Cannot execute as a child of Basic." (A mainframe error message to a programmer. Reported by Steve Weintraub.)

"There is an error somewhere between the beginning and the end of your program." (a Fortran Compiler message. Most developers know that this particular error is ALWAYS true, it need not be stated.)

Sue Zahmen:

In the 1940's and '50s, we used to send short messages across country for free. I'm talking about Ma Bell Telephone, not ham radio. When I learned about this communication medium, I was so traumatized that I've remembered it ever since. My aunts, stealing from the telephone company!

My two aunts had just flown across country for a visit. We picked them up at the airport and brought them home. Now, they wanted to advise family back on the west coast that they had arrived safely. Long distance calls cost real money in those days. But here's what they did: they placed a collect call. There was a certain etiquette to collect calls that the phone company required. You told the operator your name, the person you wanted to call, and the number to call. Then, while you remained online listening, the operator placed the call and asked, “Do you wish to accept a collect call from X?”

You were required to keep your mouth shut during this interchange. Shouting “It's Edna, I'm okay!” over the operator's question was right out. But my aunts used a well-worn tactic: They told the operator they wanted to call a fanciful person, a made-up name. That way, the people at the other end knew that everything was okay, and they refused to accept the collect call.

You might think that this made-up name was a signal agreed-upon in advance, but no. During the long flight, my aunts were expected to think up a name that would surprise and delight their relatives back west, while also, in some manner of word play, suggest that they had arrived okay, together. I blush to tell you the awful name they asked for on this occasion.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Toss the Pasta Sauce!

Bruce Schneier explains what's really wrong about having the TSA screen for jars of liquid, knitting needles, and the like. His post begins with a TSA agent finding a jar of pasta sauce in Schneier's luggage. He confiscates it and tosses it into a bin full of similar jars of liquids. Schneier does not even bother to state the obvious: if those jars were explosive, tossing another explosive jar into the mix ought to be catastrophic; but no one thinks for a moment that there's the slightest danger.

Schneier moves on to a surprising conclusion. Check him out.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Apple iPhone developers need a Union:

I could stud this blog entry with links, but I won't; you can easily check my facts if you wish. Apple opened the iPhone to third-party applications, making their phone terrifically different from all the other lame phones you can buy. Hundreds (maybe thousands) of developers are preparing apps for the iPhone. Some apps are amusing, some are useful. Some are free, some can make money for their developers, and -- of course -- for Apple.

But there's a catch. To keep the iPhione clean from viruses, malicious apps and disgusting content, Apple has to approve each app. I personally would not risk a few hundred development hours when Apple has the right to tell me "thanks but no thanks" at the very end of the process. But hundreds of software people have taken that risk, and reports are multiplying of what appear to be wholly unjustified rejections by Apple. And there's a common theme: if you want to know for sure why Apple rejected your app, so that you can fix it maybe, you're out of luck. Stare at those tea leaves, you might learn something.

Apple third party developers: you need to join together. Make a guild, or a union, to negotiate with Apple, to tell the whole world when Apple is unreasonable. You need clout. Or you need to forget the iPhone, and get a life.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Prophet of Panamindorah:

Today I'm recommending an audio book to you that I am greatly enjoying. It's the first in a series. The series is: The Prophet of Panamindorah, and the first book is Fauns and Filinians. The author, Abigail Hilton, has imagined a wondrously complex world for the settings of her tales. It sprawls over time and place, even touching down in Florida. Her world is full of imaginary creatures that are fascinating for the listener to imagine. The action is fast and furious, and a sizable handful of characters comes alive in the constant political infighting and intrigues that pepper her tale. It's a really fun read. Click the picture above to hear the promo. Here's the Web Page for Book 1 at PodioBooks. And here's the author's Panamindorah website.

Thank you, Mr. Garbage Man!

My home 'office' has a plastic antistatic mat. It's old, it has been crumbling, and it was time to replace it. I got it out of my room and contemplated how to get rid of it. It was enormous, 45" by 53", and pretty thick. If I just dropped it at the curb, garbage men would never notice it, and it would kill grass.

With difficulty, I rolled it up enough to stick it into an empty garbage can. The plastic mat stuck out way above the top of the can, but at least it was in there. Garbage men are finicky; they know what they are supposed to pick up, what to ignore. Would they take it?

They did, at the first opportunity. Thank you, Mr. garbage man.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Password Problems:

This morning, during my regular radio broadcast, I tried to log in to Google Mail, but my password was not accepted. I tried several times, watching what I typed carefully, in mounting frustration and worry. I knew I was typing the right password! I prepared to tell Gmail that I had forgotten my password; I even made sure I could log into my backup email to receive a message from Google about my password. But then common sense set in. I had no idea what was going on, so I decided to wait until I got home, even though I badly wanted access to my email.

At about the same time, I noticed something else bizarre. I always enter data into a “playlist”, about each piece of music I play. Some of the radio station keyboard keys were producing funny characters with accent marks, instead of the normal punctuation I expected.

Eventually I put two and two together. I was unable to enter my password because the keyboard was in some weird foreign language mode. If I had managed to tell Google a new password, it wouldn't have worked at home. I saved myself a day's frustration by refusing to overreact and “fix” my password right away. And now, I'm reminding myself that passwords can fail due to keyboard issues. To see if I'm experiencing such an error, I can try entering the password in my login ID field, because that field does not have a mask, so I see what I type.

And that brings me to a topic I've mentioned before. It's not so great that password fields mask your input. Unless someone is standing over your shoulder or watching nearby, you are better off seeing the password you type, for many reasons. We almost never have that option.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Baseball: neutral site

Today, I have a few outrageous suggestions for Major League Baseball. First, it's time to do like football, and play the World Series at a neutral site, in a stadium that has either mild fall weather or a dome. The current playoff schedule has pushed the game dates too late, to a point where bad weather can ruin a good competition, washing away the players' pitching and fielding skills. And by the way, team fans will travel to see the series, just as football fans travel to the Superbowl. Using a neutral site will also improve publicity and ratings. Imagine a world series between, say, Milwaukee and Washington, played -- fortunately -- in Los Angeles.

Playing the series at a neutral location eliminates travel dates. The series can be played in seven straight days, or maybe with one rest day after game four. The current format, with two rest days, over-emphasizes good front-line pitching. To get into the playoffs, a team needs a good complete staff, but winning the series requires maybe three fine starters, a closer and two setup pitchers. Fewer rest days will make the series a whole-team affair. I really want to see the hide-bound leaders of basball wake up and make this change.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Fire the Boss ...

John Dvorak's blog pointed to a column by Robert X. Cringely. It's a fascinating column that intelligently covers several topics, but eventually it focuses on how to improve an IT organization while cutting it. His solution is to fire the (likely incompetent) boss.

Cringely reminds me of a time in my career where I and my boss audited a large software organization. We eventually brought a lot of bad news to the vice president of software development at that company, including the fact that the programmers were a C+ group. (He had thought they were A- at least.) His organization was not producing, and hardly anyone realized how far behind schedule they were. He asked us how to improve his organization. We couldn't bear to tell him: he had to go. This was just one more case where you could only improve the group from the top down.

Imagine a really fine programmer coming to interview at this company. They desperately want to hire him, to improve their staff. But he sees that if he takes a job here, he'll be working for incompetent management. He sees that his coworkers won't be very competent, and their work will make his own work more difficult. He could hardly miss all the signs we saw. He won't take the job. When an organization is a mess, you can't fix it from the bottom up.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

I just offered Ed Felton Five Dollars:

Ed Felton has a fascinating new argument about the value of privacy. He looks at situations where people are willing to give away their privacy for very small compensation. Traditionally, experts argue that such actions show that people don't value their privacy. Ed argues differently: If you know that your birth date is readily available, you will probably be willing to sell it to someone for very little. Ed says that if people sell their personal details readily and cheaply, they are showing that they believe their private details are already poorly protected, and thus worth little.

I wonder how Ed values his privacy, especially where security is involved. So I just offered Ed Felton five dollars for the right to publish information about a specific time period when his house will be unoccupied. (You'll see my offer among the comments to his argument.) I'm making a sincere offer, and I really don't know whether Ed will go for it.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

I Gave Blood!

In my life, I've given over eight gallons of blood. But for the last five or so years, I was on a “permanently deferred” list, for alternately failing and passing one of their precautionary blood tests.

Many medical tests are quantitative. You run a test that produces some sort of score, and people decide that a certain score is a pass or fail. They set the scores to minimize either false positives or false negatives, whichever is most awful. In the case of keeping the blood supply clean, false positives are less serious. The blood bank doctor who stopped me from giving blood was frank about this. My test was borderline, but two borderline fails and I was out.

About five years went by, and I passed the test yet again. I started thinking – after all this time, maybe the test has become more precise. I applied to the blood bank again to be allowed to give blood. The doctor agreed that the test had become more accurate and was happy to retest me one more time, and I passed.

Today was the glorious day when I went to the familiar blood room, and observed all the procedures that had stayed the same, and all the procedures that had changed. It was a triumph for me, but also a day of great nostalgia. I have only a few more years to give blood before I'm too old, but I might get to the ten gallon mark.

Here's one of the things that has changed since I last gave blood: Afterwards, the technician placed the usual bandage over the spot where she had drawn blood. She said “Be careful to bend your elbow as little as possible. There's no inflammation there now, but if you bend it a lot, there will be.”
I whined, “How do you remember not to bend your elbow?”
“Oh,” she said, “I just told you that to make me feel better.”

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Intelligently Designed Game of Spore:

Will Wright's game of Spore will be released this Friday and Sunday. The game has had great publicity, and it will rank among the most popular computer games for years. Spore features a faux simulation of evolution, incorrect in many respects; yet it will give its players a sense of how evolution can work. In the game, a few simple rules govern how creatures can evolve. Hordes of people have been tinkering with the game's initial evolution machine, and they have produced a prodigious variety of creatures.

Now here's what interests me:

Kids who are anti-evolutionists will play this game. Children of proponents of Intelligent Design will play this game. Anti-evolutionist grown-ups will play this game. How will it affect their perception of evolution? If you do not believe in evolution, what will you say about this game?

You might just diss Spore, or even try to ban it. Or you might claim that what happens in this game is actually a form of Intelligent Design. But there's no getting around the fact that the game will familiarize people with evolution. And once you get the hang of it, there may be no going back. And don't forget, Spore will be taught in the schools -- informally, even though it's not part of the curriculum -- it's going to be the main topic of discussion for a lot of gamers, for months.