Thursday, December 31, 2009

Charge It:

As the world's technology changes, it's fun to make jokes about what people used to take for granted, that we no longer remember. I loved that scene in a Superman movie where Clark Kent needs a phone booth to change in, but all he can find is an open public phone on its stand in the sidewalk; no booth. Jules Feiffer drew a great cartoon almost fifty years ago about his schlub character, Bernard Mergendeiler, wanting to rent a phone booth to live in so that his friends would know he was available. Booths? Public phones? Every old hotel has a wall full of peculiar-looking bays near the bathrooms, where the pay phones used to be.

There's something else you may not remember – or know of – from the old telephone days. Let me tell you a story:

In the early 1960's my wife and I lived in what had been intended as temporary housing for returning WW II veterans: ridiculously flimsy little Graduate Student homes at Princeton University. In late 1965, I think, we got new neighbors, Bob and Vicky. They were not just 1960's people. They were offbeat 1960's people. She was slim and very pretty. He was tall with a big shock of hair and a rough-and-ready, capable-guy persona.

The first thing they did was to paint the gypsum-board walls of their apartment, a flat light color. The last bit of painting, which I'm sure fascinated all their visitors who saw the result, was different. Vicky stood naked against the living room wall, arms and legs spread, and Bob painted an explicit silhouette of her entire body. The silhouette wasn't very close to the front door, leaving room for the full-size blacksmith's anvil that moved in with their spare, artsy possessions.

We shared a single building with them, separated by a thin wall. We heard everything that went on in each other's apartments, and I mean everything, which means that one night, when Bob yelled at a peeping Tom, he woke us up.

That winter, Bob and Vicky went on vacation around December 14. Thank God they left a window open so that their cat could get in and out.

About a week later, their phone began to ring. They rarely got phone calls, so these calls were noteworthy. They came about every three hours, and the caller tried about twenty rings before giving up, every time. The calls came morning, afternoon and middlenight. And they were LOUD. In those days, we all had clunky, massive AT&T phones that typically kept working for eighty years. They had real bells in them, not electronic imitations of bells. Those night calls woke us up.

After a few nights, I'd had it. The phone rang, yet again. I threw on coat and slippers, ran outside, crawled through their window in the dark, and answered their phone.

I found myself talking to an AT&T operator. She informed me that I -- Bob, that is -- had made an “Other Number Call" on a certain date. The call would cost $1.75. Would I accept the charge? I said that I did. There were no more annoying calls. AT&T operators had been calling for DAYS to get this charge cleared up. Now let me explain.

In the old days, if you were away from home, you could make a call and charge it to your home phone number. (That's the “Land Line number” for you young persons.) You gave your name and number – some people used to lie about this – and then AT&T enabled you to make the call. But AT&T did not trust you 100 percent. They would subsequently call you at home and get you to agree to be billed for the “Other number” call. When you were home.

Bob and Vicky returned in early January. I had bought us quite a bit of peaceful silence by then.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

My GPS Hits a Home Run:

A GPS is a wonderful device if you know what you're doing. And if you have plenty of time. My Garman 1300T Nuvi did a brilliant bit of navigating for me today. However, every plus for my GPS seemed to come with a minus. Here's the score:

  1. MINUS! My story begins a week ago, when the GPS began to hang every time I tried to use its database of places. Otherwise, it worked fine.
  2. MINUS! I deleted all my “favorite places” to see if that would fix the problem. It didn't, and I will have to re-enter them.
  3. MINUS! I was on hold yesterday for two hours and twenty minutes, trying to reach Garmin. The automated message had warned me the hold would be over 30 minutes. I eventually gave up.
  4. PLUS?? I called Garmin again this morning, the moment they opened for customer service. The automated message warned me that the hold would be over 30 minutes. Yet I was immediately connected to an operator. Garmin may know where we are in space, but it seemed clueless about the fourth dimension.
  5. MINUS? The operator said she could transfer me to technical support, where the wait time was only two minutes. She transferred me, and I was on hold for twenty-six minutes.
  6. PLUS!! The guy at technical service quickly fixed my GPS by reinstalling the system software.
  7. I went to the post office south of Princeton. From there, I wished to go to the new Trader Joe's in our area. I was convinced there was a brilliant, short route from the P.O. to TJs, but I did not know how to find it. I asked the GPS to find Trader Joes. That store is not in its data base. I understand, the store is pretty new. There is a Lowe's at the same shopping center, so I asked the GPS to go there instead.
  8. PLUS! (with two minuses): There was a brilliant route, and the GPS found it; it took me right to the entrance of the shopping center, even though (MINUS) the entrance road to the center was not on its map, and (MINUS) it really wanted me to cross US Route 1 to get to Lowe's (incorrectly placed on the other side of the big highway).

There's no point adding up those pluses and minuses. I'm so glad to know about that clever route.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Sweat it out!

I'm a steam-room kind of guy. The only use I have for a Sauna is this: it's a nice warm place to dry off after a shower. So I entered the Sauna at the fitness club and found three highschool seniors (I think) huddled up on the benches. They were wearing sweatpants and hoodies, very irregular for our Sauna. (The rules say you're supposed to wear a towel or a swimsuit. But I wasn't going to complain, because I wear neither while drying off.)

I stared at them politely, trying to figure out why they were there. After awhile, Guy A said, “Losing weight sucks.”
I asked, “Are you trying to make a weight limit?”
“Wrestling,” he said.
Guy B said “We all got out of condition over the holiday.” (I guess 'out of condition' is a euphemism for too much food.)
Guy C said, “My plan is: I leave here and go to Bagel Barn.”
Guy A looked mournful and said: “Ain't gonna happen.”

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Book Report: The Montreal Olympics by Paul C. Howell

This is not a sports book. It explains how the 1976 Montreal Olympics were planned, financed and prepared. Its author is a long-time friend of mine, the planning director, who was there from start to finish. I intend to review this book properly after I finish it; but I'm already excited enough to talk about it, and I'm in chapter five. If you have no experience of managing a development project, then this book is your opportunity to gaze deep into the challenges, risks and responsibilities that managers face when they try to do something that has not been done before. If you have ever managed a development project involving a dozen people or more, then this book will read like a thriller for you, as you empathize with the key committees and the great dangers they face on an unforgiving, fixed schedule.

Imagine the Olympic planners sitting in their offices in 1972. They have come to realize that they must find and hire hundreds of skilled executives, each of whom will be responsible for making one aspect of the Olympics come together. They must find the money to hire all these people. And as they realize this, they sit in their offices in their coats, for they lack even the funds to turn on the heat in their building. How fast can they make it all happen? How many good guesses will they have to make?

This is not a rah-rah-we-did-it book. Howell analyzes decisions made and not made, difficult guesses about future needs, counter-currents among personnel, political infighting and string-pulling. It's all there for you to follow, with that dread fixed deadline hanging over the chase to succeed.

You can buy it here, if you like.

The names aren't always strange:

You know, the players on the football team, they have some pretty strage names. And I'm not leading into the Abbot and Costello routine. Because not all pro football players have strange names. Take, for example, this conversation I heard during a TV game last week:
Announcer A: You know, that receiver's really good. He reminds of Steve Smith.
Announcer B: Yeah!
Announcer B, a moment later: Uhh, which Steve Smith?

Friday, December 25, 2009

Ten Commandments Plus:

Cecil B. DeMille directed >The Ten Commandments in 1923, and he directed the remake in 1956. Yet another Ten Commandments movie showed up in 2007, this one about Moses. I'm really glad that none of these movies seems to require a sequel, because, these days, you know what they would call it? Yup: The Eleven Commandments.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Even Better TV:

A recent legal decision – in a case so revolting that I won't even link to it – highlighted an important principle of our legal system: Imagine a jury hearing a criminal case that takes days to complete. Suppose that the defendant happens to be in jail without bail, and he appears in court each day in his prison garb. He looks like a prisoner to the jury. As days go by, they think of him as a criminal, and they convict him. But No! That defendant is entitled to be tried on the merits of his case, not on his looks. He's entitled to wear normal clothes and look innocent in the courtroom. Which brings us to my new idea for a Reality TV show: The Perp Walks!

Each week, the show interviews a defendant whose trial is about to start. You get a pretty good look at him, and you hear the case against him. On camera, he (or she) says whether he's guilty, but you don't get to see that part before the trial. (You think he might lie? That's not important. Read on...)

The makeover crew of 'Perp Walks' gives the defendant a real going over. They spruce him (or her) up and buy a really nice wardrobe. Then we get to find out whether the perp was convicted. Maybe we even get to see a bit of the trial, to see how he (or she) looks in court. On the TV show, the post-trial analysts decide whether the makeover was the crucial step to winning the case, if the perp wins.

Are you wondering how alleged perpetrators get picked for a makeover on the 'Perp Walks' show? They have to compete for it. Of course!

Sunday, December 20, 2009


On a nearby store with “Dollar” in its name, a sign said: All Items: $1.00 and up.
It wasn't even telling the truth. Most items in the store were $1.19 or $1.38, but you could buy candy for 69 cents.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Another Leak, the worst so far:

You're probably talking about this terrible security disaster already: the largest database leak ever. Arweena, a spokes-elf for Santa Claus, admitted a few hours ago that the database posted at WikiLeaks yesterday is indeed the comprehensive 2009 list of which kids have been naughty, and which were nice. The source of the leak is unclear. It may have come from a renegade reindeer, or it could be the work of a clever programmer in the Ukraine. Either way, it's a terrible black eye for Santa. Arweena promised that in the future, access to this database would be restricted on a “need to know” basis. And you know who that means!

The size of this database is astounding; it's not just for Christians. Abu Dhabi and India have registered official protests over the inclusion of their children in the comprehensive worldwide listings; And there have been howls of outrage everywhere about the inclusion of sixteen and seventeen year-olds. Santa's list is an inexcusable invasion of privacy for teenagers everywhere.

The myriad of inaccuracies (see Cory Doctorow's critique at Boing Boing) makes matters much worse. The majority of the children are accurately identified by their age, addresses, birthdates and (where possible) national identification numbers. All United States kids with Social Security numbers are now sharing their identities with the whole world. But in some cases, and for a few countries, the kids are identified by name alone. Aristotle Makektikutis, a thirteen year old Athenian, insists he is not the Aristotle Makektikutis in Santa's Greek records whose naughty deed is listed as “pollution.” His parents have issued a statement that their son does not even know how to pollute.

But it gets worse. In fact, this reporter thinks that any sober assessment of Santa's database can come to only one conclusion: it never should have been, and it should never be again. The mistakes! Jane Doe (actual name withheld), who is fully identified in the database and stands accused of “weak morals” is actually twenty-six, not eleven as shown in Santa's data record. Jane Doe has had to disappear into the FBI witness protection program to hide from the crowd of men seeking her company. Frequent age errors in the database mean that grown men and women who used their social security numbers as banking passwords are now losing their life savings. This outrage cannot go on.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Pity the poor Predators and their handlers:

Today's scandal concerns the revelation that our terrorist enemies have been intercepting the video that unmanned Predator airplanes transmit to our forces on the ground. It sounds like a terrible black eye for our military that this “hacking” has been going on. (By the way, this is not actually “hacking,” any more than watching TV in your home is “hacking”.) Our enemies need little more than a laptop and a very cheap program to record the video. And many, many hours of Predator surveillance have been discovered on enemy laptops.

I think there's a lot of nonsense in the way the media is reporting this story. I've had a lot of time to think about this encryption issue, because I have been working on another program that transmits video to the ground. (I do not have any government clearance; I have no special knowledge of the Predator program, and I am not about to give away any secrets. Let's just talk sense here.) There are costs to using encryption, even if encryption had been instituted on Predators from Day One. There are costs to having the Predator's video intercepted, and I suspect that these costs are being overhyped. I hope that our military analysts choose a sensible reaction to this monitoring problem, rather than a 'move-plot” reaction (by assuming the fantastically worst possible outcome).

First, let's consider the costs of operating an encrypted system. Today's powerful computers can probably encrypt and decrypt a video stream on the fly, so that there will be no delay in using the video on the ground. That may not have been the case when the current Predator design was approved. It's possible that encryption was not included from day one because adding this feature would have made the program much more difficult, delayed it, and made it less useful.

Today, as the media have discussed, the problem is that adding encryption to all the relevant government computers is a considerable cost, and a likely delay. During such an upgrade, some computers that need to run flawlessly may be temporarily incompatible with the encrypted feed; or they may assume that the feed is encrypted when in fact it is not. Such confusion hurts us, possibly more than the current open feed helps our enemies.

Let's assume that we do upgrade all Predators to use encryption. There will still be an ongoing cost, possibly a painful one. The Predator and its ground crew will have to share the password to be able to view the video. Obviously, all Predators cannot use the same wired-in password all the time, because when that password is leaked or guessed, everything would be in the open again. Sometimes the ground crews and the Predator will fail to share the same password. (This is a corollary of Murphy's law, trust me on this.) So using encryption means that some entire flights will be useless.

Finally, I would like to speculate about what our enemies are getting by viewing our Predator video. I am not impressed by the argument that it tells then where our troops are. There are other ways to know where a Predator is, and one good way would be to intercept its video stream even without being able to read the stream. I am sure that anyone with access to hundreds of hours of Predator video can figure out something useful about our military habits, by analyzing what we choose to make our Predators examine, and by analyzing what we choose to look at most closely. But it's possible that we could post all this Predator video on the web and be no worse off. (We would actually be better off, because hundreds of Americans would spend their own time examining the video, and reporting important phenomena that are hard to see, under stress in the field.)

Now let's remember the bottom line: there are costs to encrypting, and costs to not encrypting. Someone has to balance these costs and decide how to spend our military time and money most wisely. Let's not let embarrassment stampede us into action.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Under a dollar for coffee...

When I buy really excellent coffee beans, I'm horrified by the cost. Shipping (which is highway robbery of course) pushes the rates up to about $28 per pound. To assuage my conscience, I follow an expensive order with a cheap one, more like $7/pound. In my opinion, the $7/pound coffee I buy still makes a better drink than you can buy in Starbucks, for dollars per cup.

I had never tried to figure out how many cups of coffee I can get for that money, but I'm tracking my consumption this time. At first I was hoping that the cost for my expensive beans would be less than $1.50 per cup, but it appears that the cost per cup will be much better, about $0.85. That's pretty fantastic, considering that I believe I'm making better coffee than I can buy in nearby coffee houses, and much cheaper too.

But here's the thing: As I noticed that the likely cost per cup was coming down, I did not get very excited. Because no matter how many cups I get per pound of beans, it's obvious that the $7/pound coffee costs one fourth of that. In relative terms: compared to Starbucks, my expensive coffee is a bargain; compared to supermarket prices, it's a grand luxury.

Friday, December 11, 2009

AT&T, can you stand the heat?

AT&T has determined that its iPhone users are using too much bandwidth. In fact, just a few percent of iPhone users account for nearly half of the bandwidth that its iPhone customers require. AT&T proposes to 'educate' these users, or else to charge them more, to make them cut back. This sort of misguided thinking by our Internet providers threatens to push United States Networking back into the dark ages of computing.

In fact, iPhone's 'leading edge' users are requiring the sort of bandwidth that fifty percent of iPhone users will require in about three years. AT&T's job is to plan for those needs, not to scuttle them. The bottom line? AT&T, if you can't stand the heat, get out of the iPhone.

Monday, December 07, 2009

A Devastating Putdown:

I met a fellow today whom I haven't thought about for years. We were reintroduced, and I really put him down. He was not devastated, but I clearly got to him. At the time, I was fascinated that I had invented a nasty remark, and sorry that I had used it. He's a nice guy, and he didn't begin to deserve it.

I had walked into the lab to find a manager bringing a developer up to speed, a person I did not recognize. I started to introduce myself, but he said, “Toby, I remember you. We worked together ten years ago on the motion video project.” And he told me his name.

I remembered him at once. In fact, we had been acquaintances at best. We worked with the same people, but not quite on the same project, and our paths had indeed crossed quite often in 1999 and 2000. My response to him was, “I remember! You never answered my last email to you, in 2003.”

That was the putdown. And as best as I can recall, it's true. In 2003, I was looking for consulting work, and I had systematically emailed developers I knew of including, this Mr. X.

I wish I had saved my remark for someone who really deserved it. I can think of a lot of situations in which my remark would be even more devastating if I, and the other person, both knew it was false.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Too many ads:

There are too many ads in pro football. The ads slow an unnecessarily slow game into a painfully slow game. I record games on Tivo so that I can “speedwatch”, and I still find it annoying to skip over so many ads.

One situation in particular annoys me. I don't understand why fans accept it. A lot of people watch pro football on TV, and they should all be complaining. It works like this: When a team scores, there's an ad break. That's fine. Excellent time for a few ads. Then comes the kickoff, and right after it, there's another ad break. That means we get to watch ONE PLAY sandwiched between pods of ads.

The people who televise the games know that what they are doing is wrong. Late in the game, if the score is close, they'll skip that ad after the kickoff and leave the excitement in. Ads after the kickoff: what a dumb idea.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


I've been reading Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. This book is full of well-planned experiments that show we do not reason as we believe we do. The book is full of entertaining surprises, and you can just read it for fun. But I think it is helpful to try to understand situations where we cannot help acting irrationally in predictable ways, and situations where we might become more rational if we knew how to try.

I noticed one of the latter situations during my vacation. I was often away from my email for days at a time, and when I finally logged in, I usually found dozens of emails waiting for me. The majority of these were ad-mails from companies I had once made a purchase from. I had no idea how many of these I got per week, but at last I realized that I value the time it takes me to scan and delete each of these dumb messages.

I realized that I was behaving in accordance with one of the principles discussed in Ariely's book: we tend to overvalue the risk of losing something. I had not unsubscribed to any of these company's ad-mails, because, one of these days, I might need to know – or to be reminded of – what they were selling.

With newly opened eyes, I have been vigilantly unsubscribing, and I'm enjoying my email more.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Organic Whatever:

I've just finished consuming a lovely gift: a Goji Berry bar. If you're not familiar with Goji berries, you need to know that they contain a certain amount of protein, which makes them very special.

Now I'm something of a party pooper with regard to protein content in foods. I consider a food to be a good source of protein if the food's cost is less than ten cents per protein gram. Goji berries do not come anywhere near this standard, but the Goji bar tasted delicious, and it did contain five grams of protein.

The bar also labeled itself "organic," and let me tell you what that means. The quite annoying contents are: Organic Peanuts, Organic Raisins, Organic Sunflower Seeds, Organic Almonds, Organic Agave Syrup, Organic Goji Berries, Organic Brown Rice Syrup, Organic Raspberries, and Organic Organics (I just threw that last one in to see if you're paying attention).

For me, the magic of this awful Organic nagging is spoiled by what it says on the packaging just after the ingredients list:

My goodness, you don't suppose they are warning us that the product may contain non-organic ingredients do you? (I don't; I assume that the laws governing these warnings do not permit them to scream ORGANIC. I hope I'm right. I consume a lot of non-organic products, but I'd never want to do that unintentionally.)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Exxon (Xonex), Boxing:

Exxon, in the 1960's (I think), developed a plan to remain a high profit company even after the world's oil supplies ran out. All they had to do was become a major player in the computer business, where profits seemed even higher than in oil. Exxon nurtured a series of computer startups between 1975 and 1985. In the early 1980's, they combined the most successful of these into Exxon Office Systems (EOS). Exxon pulled the plug on EOS early in 1985. They may have wagered as much as a billion dollars (over a decade) in computer companies. (In contrast, I've heard that AT&T lost a billion in one year of the computer business, in 1985.)

Today, computer profit margins are dwindling, although not everywhere, and the world's oil supply still has many years to run. I just want to share one brief observation with you, from my early years in Exxon's computer business.

In mid 1978, I joined Exxon's 19th computer startup. Its goal was to produce the paperless office. It was expected to rely heavily on the 20th startup, which tried and failed to develop the first practical office optical disk drive. Our startup was called “Xonex”. The name is an anagram of Exxon, and it is also a sort of spelling of 19 in roman numerals (X one X). For about a year and a half, Xonex worked in happy isolation, but then we got more and more involved with the other startups.

I believe that the majority of Exxon's startups were duds. (I could be wrong about this, but I never heard anything about most of them.) The non-duds were pretty exciting: the first cheap Fax; ink-jet technology; an intelligent typewriter; and the world's best (for a year or three) word processing system. After a while, Exxon forced them to try to work together, and then Exxon squeezed us all into one company.

In 1980, I often thanked my CEO for giving me more than to the opportunity to do cutting edge work. I told him that I also felt I was in the first row, watching a boxing match, as Exxon figured out how to deal with all its ventures. This “dealing” got more and more exciting to watch. It was a terrific education in business management for me.

But then, frankly, it got too exciting. That's when I realized: I wasn't in the front row watching a boxing match; I was in the ring!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Dink for Doink!

After seeing and hearing many of the wonderful applications that have been invented for the iPhone: I wish someone would invent a music box that can make phone calls.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Impressions of Jerusalem, Autumn, 2009:

We just spent a wonderful two weeks in Israel. Nonetheless, many impressions of this foreign culture are relatively bizarre. Here are some of my memories from the trip:

They told us the weather was unusual for the degree of rain: torrents fell in blocks of days. But there were sunny summer and fall days as well. Sometimes we let Jersusalem's presence enwrap our own presences, joyous in the clear air among the bountiful views. And sometimes we engaged in what seemed like a war to overcome this country, however briefly, to accomplish some tiny goal. Israel is too clever; Israelis are too smart for their own good.

An elevator lifted us from the depths of a parking garage right up to the street. A one-way door allowed us to leave it, but there was no way for a disabled person to take the elevator back to our car.

A liberal sprinkling of traffic lights moves Jerusalem's traffic a little. Often you see many traffic lights at once (they are not masked for direct view, as in the US). Different lights, often in different colors, advise you when you can go straight or turn. Such ornament-driving demands great concentration.

Always, you must watch for 'turn-only' lanes. Near the King David Hotel, there's a tiny road that ends on a main street. You stay on the little road to turn left, but you must cross part of a gas station to find the right turn lane.

In the last twenty years, we have seen Jerusalem choke on its traffic. Despite some wonderful projects to speed traffic around the periphery, the narrow downtown streets fill with halting trucks and cars. And these winding streets have been intentionally narrowed even further: by reserving lanes for buses and taxis; and by destroying other lanes to build a light rail transport whose ongoing construction endures forever. When Israel decided they needed tunnels for some of their roads, tunnels sprang up in a year or two. But light rail construction appears to be similar to continental drift: centimeters per century.

Parking on streets is now civilized. You used to have to buy pasteboards at the post office and stick pins in holes to mark your parking allowance. As tourists, we used to park illegally, fearing that we could never deal with the P.O. Now you find machines at every parking site that sell parking rights for shekels.

Despite what you read in the news, the great day-to-day danger in Israel is car accidents. Everybody knows someone who died in one. Many of those dead are pedestrians. I kept a few of them alive myself, when – as usual – they stepped off the curb without looking.

There's a lot of negotiating in Israel, and it's fun to assume that no price is fixed. I parked in the Neviim Street Parking Lot, where the clearly posted price was a very expensive 12 shekels per hour. "For an hour and a quarter," the attendant told me, "the price is already 20. And it goes up from there. But you can pay me twenty in advance for the whole day."
I paid twenty, and the attendant carefully wrote 'all day' (in English) on my parking ticket. Maybe I could have bargained down to eighteen, who knows? But I parked there almost three hours, so I thought I had struck a great bargain, until I returned to my car. There was no attendant at the lot to collect fees! I could have parked for nothing, unless the only reason the two attendants left was that all the remaining drivers, like me, had paid in advance.

We drove half of our 960 kilometers in the West Bank territories, where friends, and children of friends, and even an express road have chosen to live. The K'far Adumim settlement, on a few hilltops in the middle of nowhere, offers stunning views. I stood on a porch where I could see both Jerusalem and Amman. "They are that close together," my host said. "Think about it."

Elaine gifted me with a special tourist treat: a 100-minute Segway ride, rolling through the parks and grounds near the Knesset. It will probably be my only Segway ride ever, and it was wonderful.

In the past, we traveled all the way to the depths of Tel Aviv to buy bitter almonds for Elaine's most special cake. They are difficult to buy, perhaps because a single bitter almond, uncooked, can kill a young child. A friend insisted that by now it must be possible to buy them in Jerusalem's great shouk, Machane Yehuda. We were doubtful, having failed in the past, but this time we succeeded. (You have to find a vendor who sells them, rather than a vendor who falsely claims to sell them and offers you ordinary almonds; the real ones taste horribly bitter.) We also discovered that Machane Yehuda has entered the 21st century, with HD TVs and a fine Italian restaurant, Topolino. (For dessert we ate chocolate-filled home-made ravioli in chocolate sauce.) In fact, fine Italian dairy dining seems to be a specialty of Jerusalem.

In Hebrew, the TV show 'Ugly Betty' is named 'Betti'.

We ate our last restaurant meal at Cafe Inbal in Ein Kerem. I made sure of the exact address before driving there: 25.

I don't know why I thought that this talismanic number would help me. Ein Kerem is a town spread out in patches along a twisting valley road. Building numbers are puzzling and rare, and signs are haphazard. Eventually I pulled up at a restaurant and inquired where I might find Cafe Inbal. They pointed to a sign behind a parked car. I was there.

At Ben Gurion Airport, I watched two workers sift a few kilos of dirt near some half-hidden ticket counters. At first it seemed that their desire was to keep (for themselves) what failed to fall through the screen, but then they took the finer dirt and mixed up some concrete. I'm sure they had a good reason; there's a reason for everything in fascinating Israel.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

My Zenclass Review (Updated twice):

The ZenClass Nirvana Seat-Back Organizer and Travel Tote is a remarkable carry-on bag for airplane flights. (It's also handy in cars, on strollers and on changing tables!) I believe it's not perfect, but it's so wonderful that I look forward to discovering how to take advantage of all it offers. Here's a wonderful video to show its versatility.

The ZenClass bag zips up to form a small, light carry-on bag, about 8 by 12 inches and thin. (You'll probably keep it in your fullsize carry-on. Or you can wear it on your belt or body, in several different ways.) When you get on the plane, you unzip it and hang it over the tray that comes with your seat. The ZenClass bag has an ingenious flap for this purpose. You lock the tray in its closed position, and now all the contents of the ZenClass bag are available to you. There are three goodsize zip pockets, several see-through mesh pockets, and various special purpose holders (e.g., for a passport, for a ticket, for a pen). Depending on how you load it, you now have everything you need -- even a paperback book -- within reach for your whole flight. (You can even pop your laptop into the open bag.)

Beverage service does not require you to put your tray down; the ZenClass bag has a cupholder. When your meal comes, make sure that most of the ZenClass bag's contents are in its (closed) zip pockets. Then open the tray to eat, and the ZenClass bag will hide under the tray until you're done with your food.

I tried the ZenClass bag out on two eleven-hour flghts, and I never needed anything that was out of reach: pills, reading material, snacks, you name it.

The ZenClass bag doesn't interfere with the seat pocket below your tray, so you can fill that up too. It costs $39.99 plus shipping. I've found a few negative aspects of the ZenClass bag; perhaps some of these comments reflect my lack of experience with it:

-1: The ZenClass bag doesn't fully close when not in use. It zips three-quarters closed; the top side is "auto-closed" by magnets. I believe it's possible for small things to fall out of the top, so when the ZenClass bag is closed, I make sure that almost all its contents are zipped up in its inner pockets; a slight nuisance.

-2: It's hard to get the zipper moving when you want to close the ZenClass bag. And it gets harder, the more you fill it.

-3: Although the ZenClass bag has neat see-though pockets, your stuff will spend a lot of time zipped up out of sigtht. I think it's necessary to review what I've stuffed in all those pockets from time to time, to make sure I know what I've got.

-4: If you use a laptop on a flight, you're going to keep the tray down a lot. You'll have to get the laptop out of the way, each time you need the ZenClass bag.

Brent Hollowell (of ZenClass) wrote the following:
All of our new product has YKK zippers - the highest quality brand name zippers available. UPDATE: {I talked to Brent about the magnetic top, and found that no one has complained that they lost anything out of the top of the ZenClass bag. Thus the magnetic top appears to work just fine, although there are people like me who worry that something might fall out, when the bag is not in its normal vertical position. The magnetic top allows easy access to items in the top of the bag: passports, tickets, etc.}

In the "tray table down" position, in order to use your laptop and the organizer at the same time, try this: In the long zippered pocket that spans the entire bag, lay something fairly rigid/structured (like a couple of magazines, newspaper, book, notebook or even a laptop when not in use) across the entire inside of the pocket, horizontally, so that it spans the mid-point or folding part of the bag. This will give the bag a solid structure in the open position. You can then rest the entire unit on the metal tray table "arms"that hold the table in place (these are parallel to the floor on most current aircraft equipment).The back lip of the tray should meet the bottom edge of the organizer and hold it fairly well in position so that you can use the tray table.

It's not the most elegant solution, but unless it's insanely turbulent (or you're flying on an aircraft with the older tray tables) then you should be OK to use it in this manner as well. We did not design it for this mode, but we are working on a (hopefully) simple solution that will make it easily usable in both modes... trying to do it simply without adding quite a bit of cost, so we want to be deliberate about how we solve this one!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Fashion in “Law & Order”:

Near the beginning of almost every Law & Order TV show, the camera thoughtfully observes the first corpse. It must be someone's job to decide how to dress these corpses. I wonder if any manufacturers try to offer kickbacks to get their clothing lines on death-display.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Segway Tours!

We have just returned from a wonderful vacation in Israel, during which I took a Segway Tour in Jerusalem. If you search for Segway Tours, you'll see there are a lot of them, everywhere. There are at least two companies in Jerusalem: The Green Ride (which I took and recommend), and Segway Jerusalem (which I only know from their ad). Since riding a Segway is unintuitive, I imagine that most tours work like mine: first, they train you to use the Segway; then you start the tour on simple ground; then gradually you get a chance to zip along over hills and dips.

Touring on a Segway is great. You cover a lot of ground (I rode for 100 minutes). You see well because you are up higher. And you feel safer, because you can 'outrun' anyone if you have to. (My tour covered a lot of interesting trails where we saw absolutely no one. On the Segway I felt fine, but I might have felt uncomfortable walking in such places.)

If you're curious, here's what's unintuitive: You need to move smoothly as you step on or off it, so it doesn't try to get away from you. You control your speed by leaning forward or back at the ankles, not at the waist. You turn by sliding your handle bar right or left, not by turning the handlebar. And it's hard to keep the Segway still; you are more likely to jitter slightly back and forth when trying not to move it. After a while, some of this becomes second nature, and you just enjoy the ride.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

GPS, At Last:

For a long time, my wife and I have wondered whether to buy a GPS. Usually, my wife did the wondering, and I did the nay-saying. I’m proud of my knowledge of streets in all the places we drive, and I’m a careful user of Google Maps. Why did I need a GPS?

But times change and at last I began to suspect that a GPS might be good for both of us. Still, we delayed our purchase. With little knowledge of GPS systems, it’s not easy to choose between the $100 kind and the $600 kind. What did we want? We opted for the lower middle, a $230 Garmin 1300T. I’ve done a little local driving with it, and I've used it for a long trip as well. I am totally fascinated at how useful I think it’s going to be. I never suspected!

My wife teased me that most of the benefits I’m excited about are mickey-mouse addons. But still, let me tell you what I’m excited about. Driving long distance, late at night, there's always a danger of getting tired and hypnotized. But the GPS helped me stay alert by showing me more of the geography of the dark regions I was driving through. Another important feature is that the GPS map shows me curves before I reach them. Driving late at night, on the Merritt parkway, say, it really helps to anticipate the curves, making my driving safer.

Okay, on to the bells and whissies.

The 1300T comes with many voices. I can learn a bit of vocabulary by using other languages on familiar routes. (A German voice drove me to work, and a French voice drove me home. I’ll try the French-Canadian voice another time. I’m even going to try Cantonese.)

The GPS can monitor my driving to show me whether I am doing the right things to save fuel.

The GPS can put my current speed or altitude (something that really fascinates me) right on the dashboard, where I can easily peek at it while I drive.

The GPS 3D map gives me context about converging roads, helping me to visualize better where I am. I need this feature even locally, where roads are definitely not straight.

I usually try to stay away from down, downtown Manhattan, where where roads are definitely not in a grid. But with my GPS, I’m not afraid of this locale anymore – I think.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

An Unpardonable action (?) in a Zonealarm upgrade:

I'm not the Internet Police, so I don't get to set the rules. However, I think that Zonealarm did something that is totally unacceptable in the current version of its anti-virus software. It added a toolbar to both Internet Explorer and Firefox. It's okay for it to OFFER to add a toolbar, but it's another thing to drop it in there and wait for me to notice it. YOU HAVE TO ASK THE USER IF HE WANTS ANOTHER TOOLBAR. It's not okay to put this notice in the fine print, either.

Installing my current version of Zonealarm Antivirus (90_114) appears to have forced some bizarre behavior changes in the behavior of my home computer. I'm waiting for them to make yet another suggestion on how to recover from their upgrade, so I won't discuss my misery in detail.

One of the remarkable changes to my computer, after this upgrade, was that I can no longer run multiple “windows” of Firefox 3. I can have one window with multiple tabs. Trying to run a second window creates a situation where, when I completely exit from Firefox, I will find that it is still running, taking much of my computer's cpu to try to bring up that second window.

I “solved” that problem by noticing the Zonealarm toolbar add-on and disabling it.

In its present version, Zonealarm sought to “improve” my computer experience by interposing its own GUI into the process of downloading a file. It pops up another window, offers me choices that I have already made, shows me the progress of downloading (which firefox already shows me), and then, afterwards, asks me what I want to DO with my downloaded file. These are all waste steps that it adds to my normal procedures. As long as two years ago, there were grumbles that the Zonealarm product was morphing from a nimble, light anti-virus protection into something baroque. Perhaps the nay-sayers were right.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

WSIG: Real Country Radio

If you're tooling up US route 81 near Woodstock, Virginia, then I suggest you tune to WSIG, 96.9, Real Country Radio. They entertained me for nearly an hour with one marvelous song after another. You can listen to them on the web also: click their web site and then click the big “listen live” button. (It may take 15 seconds or so for the audio to come.)

I've sampled many country Western stations on my trips south. I haven't listened to a lot of WSIG's programming yet, but what I heard was – for me at least – exceptional. To an outsider, the lyrics of Country Western songs tend to sound banal, even though, often, they are not. The essence of CW music is that the music fits the lyrics like a glove, making every syllable seem obvious the moment you hear it. CW is a remarkable contrast to Rock, which forces its words to fit the heavy rhythms, and Blues, which often disassociates the lyrics from the rhythm altogether.

In CW, the male singers tend to sound like suave cowboys, and the women tend to sound desperate. There's a lot more variety than you may notice at first. I enjoyed one song in which the chorus was a solo on a bass guitar, with a finishing lick on a 12-stringer.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Now! You can use your voice to make phone calls:

Words seriously fail me. I've just received an email that makes me smile, and I hope it will hit you the same way. Nuance, the company that makes Dragon Naturally Speaking (excellent voice-to-text products) is testing a new product for Blackberries called Nuance Voice Control (NVC). It will enable Blackberry users to – get this – send text messages by dictating them. The dictated message will be converted to text and SMS'ed (or emailed) to its recipient. Now put aside the likelihood that the phone company will probably charge more to send the text message than they would to send the equivalent vocal message. What's really special here is that Nuance has invented a way to for people to “speak” on a telephony network. “”WATSN CM HR, I NEED U.”

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Customer Support Hell (and Heaven):

When we bought our new dishwasher, we qualified for a $50 rebate. I hate filling in rebate forms. I know they are out to get me if I make the slightest mistake. So I agonized over my form and (I thought) I got everything right.

Weeks later, I got a very polite letter. “Hey, we want to help you,” it said, “but you submitted the wrong invoice.” Darn. I submitted the bill for the dishwasher itself, forgetting that our rebate was for the installation, not the dishwasher. I plead guilty to this mistake, but it's easy to make. It seems weird to get a rebate for the installation and NOT have to submit the bill for buying the item.

So I carefully resubmitted, just ahead of their deadline.

Two weeks later we got a weird postcard advising us that one or more of our rebate requests could not be fulfilled, or was being fulfilled for partial credit. So of course I called the customer service number. They found my file at once, almost as if they had been waiting for me. I was told that it could take them three weeks for my resubmission to get into their files (this is after 2.5 weeks by the way, so for all we knew, they were still going to get my corrected letter). But they did not have my resubmission just now. Could I FAX everything to them in the next hour or be damned? (They put it more politely than that.)

My fault again, I could find only part of my paperwork. But I did find the invoice for the installation. This is the ONE thing they did not have on file, but they insisted I file the other paperwork that they already had but I couldn't find. I begged for, and got, a one day reprieve to find my paperwork.

That was Thursday. Friday was a busy day, and I simply gave up on getting the rebate.

Now it's Saturday night. I stumbled over the remaining paperwork, and I'm now in a position to FAX EVERYTHING to them. But I won't, and here's why:

In Saturday's mail, we received the full $50 rebate.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

How to make time fly when you're On Hold:

I've assembled two agonizing time-consumers together, and I really like the result.

Currently, I am waiting on the phone to talk to a New Jersey state "hotline" that might conceivably help me with one of their impenetrably bizarre computer forms. It may take me a long time to get through. I've got my phone on "speaker", and now I want time to fly until I reach them.

I also have daily PT exercises to do. I hate to think of the time I'm 'wasting' while I exercise; it takes a chunk out of my every day. I can practically feel the clock spinning its dial while I try to stay calm and hold a pose for another, oh hell, thirty seconds, three times.

So that's it: I'm doing my PT while waiting for the hotline to answer my phone call. I hope they give me time to finish...

Monday, October 12, 2009

Programmers are not like other people:

I think I have blogged before about (how hard it is to do this.

One of the many ways to minimize keystrokes while abbreviating a text note is to open parentheses (and not close them.

It's usually obvious where the closing paren goes, so why not omit the keystroke? Except that in most kinds of programming, it is important to get your parentheses balanced just right. Even now as I type, I'm resisting a desire to go back and close those two parentheses.

Today when I'm not blogging, I'm writing up my plan for my radio show tomorrow (WPRB.COM and WPRB 103.3 FM in NJ and Philly; 6:00 a.m. EDT). I have divided the show into a series of 'UNIT' items. I found that in one place I spelled the word 'UINT'. That might look like a terrible misspelling to you, but to me, it's a meaningful word. It characterizes the following symbol as a representation of an unsigned integer. So there.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

I'm playing dumb. It might be fun:

I purchased a set of Whirly balls. Fortunately they were very inexpensive. Something for my grandkids to play with, I thought. These are plastic balls similar to whiffle balls, basball size. They might be fun to catch and throw. But here's the interesting part: the packaging promised some sort of game to play with the three balls, as follows:

A Hole New Game.

{Also:} the balls are intended solely for impact with each other.

I expected to find the rules of the whirly ball game inside the packaging, but there was nothing inside except the balls. So I contacted the company that makes them -- Amloid -- and asked them to email me the rules of the game. But after seeing their other mindless beach products, I have a feeling that there will be no game at all; I was just misled by their overeager labeling. I wonder what they will say in their email...

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

How old were you when you last used trigonometry?

My father was a civil rights lawyer, but among his many interests, he enjoyed recreational math, and he was never afraid of trig tables. Our family visited his mother's farm every summer, nestled in the Catskill mountains of New York, near the Ashokan reservoir. A beautiful bridged road called the "Reservoir Road" cuts across the Ashokan on its way to the reservoir ponds and the spellbinding aeration fountains. From that bridge, there's a prodigious view of the Catskills. Looking west you see a high, long ridge, and what looks like a "duckbill," the tip of a mountain peeking over that ridge. Everybody said that the duckbill was the top of Slide, the tallest mountain in the Catskills. We always enjoyed stopping to look at that ridge, along with the whole panoply of mountains surrounding the reservoir.

One day when I was about eleven, my father asked, "Is that really the tip of Slide Mountain?" Out came the topological maps and the trig tables, and my father began to plot triangles to calculate our line of sight. From the middle of the reservoir, the view west is toward the Friday Mountain/Cornell/Wittenberg Ridge (running north/south), about 3800 feet above sea level. Slide Mountain is set well back from the ridge, at a height of 4400'. If you look at a topo map like this one, it's hard to imagine what else the duckbill could be, but still, you have to do the math to see if Slide is visible over that ridge. We did the math, and sure enough it was. I can't convey to you how satisfying it was to know that the math proved that that duckbill was Slide.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

IBMish Writing:

I'm going off half-cocked today, because I don't have a URL to point to, but I read somewhere that in Great Britain, schools are thinking about using computers to grade essay tests. Obvious jokes arise, as one thinks about how to pad a computer-read exercise to get higher grades. And what's the point in writing to a computer? They can't think.

However, I believe this is a good idea, up to a point. A computer can certainly try to check for proper spelling, punctuation and syntax. And a skilled writer, even in fourth grade, can learn how to avoid fancy writing constructions that a computer will fail to understand. It's all about technique, and everyone could use some practice in developing technique. As long as we don't trust a computer to decide whether the writer has actually answered a question.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Cancel a Mandatory Meeting:

I was invited to a mandatory meeting yesterday.

There's something wrong with that sentence, isn't there? We're not invited to mandatory meetings; we're told to come. To move our heaven and earth priorities, and to get there if we possibly can.

So I went.

This particular mandatory meeting was canceled. The cancellation notice went out an hour before the meeting, so several people – like me – didn't see it. But that's not the point.

I have deduced, in the course of my life, several rules by which a person may live better, and I have now deduced one more:

Do not cancel a mandatory meeting.

Look at it this way. When you cancel a mandatory meeting, you're saying: I'm scheduling this meeting, and you have to come. But I don't.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Now that Jay Leno's in Prime Time:

I Tivoed the second show so I could watch it later.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Bacteria! Infections! Shower heads! Never mind?

BBC News brings us the apparently useless news that showerheads can harbor dangerous bacteria. News sources are pretty good at misquoting their sources, but if this quote is accurate, I think we can forget about the whole thing:
Lead researcher Professor Norman Pace, said: "If you are getting a face full of water when you first turn your shower on, that means you are probably getting a particularly high load of Mycobacterium avium, which may not be too healthy."

Now when's the last time you turned your shower on, directly at your face? Didn't you let it run for a few seconds, or do you like to be frozen by cold tap water? I'm going to ignore this invaluable alert.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Accidental Ping!

I'm sure I once blogged about a clever tactic I used in my years of work at Exxon Office Systems. I had a reputation as a reliable hard worker. That meant that on rare occasions, I could accept an action item for something I hated to do, and then just not do it. I always got away with this, by the way. No one ever noticed; and if they had, I would have played for time by saying, “I sent you an email. Didn't you get it?”

Now I have discovered a vaguely similar tactic, but I have no use for it now. I hope it's helpful to some of you.

Let's suppose there's someone you need to contact by email. You tried twice (no response), and you fear trying again, because you don't want to seem to be bugging them. So you address them on some irrelevant email that was obviously intended for another person. There should be some name-similarity so that it will be obvious you just hit the wrong name in your address list.

After they send this irrelevant email back to you, telling you that you mis-addressed it: voila! You're in touch.

Thursday, September 03, 2009


I drove to the Post Office to ship a light package overseas. I parked to the right of a gas guzzler. A middle-aged woman struggled on my left to remove a large package from her car.

I decided that the right thing to do was to sit and wait for her. If I opened my car door, it would just get in her way. ... Five seconds later, I asked myself, What is she going to do with that package? Obviously, she was going to go into the P.O. and get on line, the same line I needed to get on. And she would be ahead of me.

Oh, no you don't!

I opened my door a tad, squeezed out and slipped past her, mumbling “Excuse me, excuse me,” and I hurried to the door.

And then my heart sank. Between me and the infernal clerk-line lay three heavy double doors. Here came that woman, struggling with her large package. And I knew what I had to do.

I opened the first double door so that she could enter ahead of me.

I opened the second double door so that she could enter ahead of me.

I opened the last double door so that she could enter ahead of me. She stepped in and said, “Go ahead, you go first.”


Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Rare Earths:

The New York Times has a great article on the next world elemental scarcity: Rare Earths. Apparently, China mines the giant share of Rare Earth minerals. It is squeezing the world supply and persuading companies that they can get enough Rare Earths by building their factories in China. There's a lot of good background in this story, and a great chart on its second page (click where it says 'Multimedia').

Monday, August 31, 2009

Tomatoes and Tomatillos:

We didn't grow tomatoes last year, but we're at it again. So far, my six tomato plants have produced 643 cherry tomatoes. One of my two tomatillo plants has produced only flowers and leaves, but the other has grown 14 tomatillos. And these lovely things seem to have no natural enemy or devourer in our climate.

Hurricane names for 2009 (not):

My wife and I were struck by the fact that the first two hurricanes to threaten us in 2009 have plebian male names: Bill and Danny. We started to think about a list of hurricane names that would alternate beautiful, elegant women with utterly ordinary men. Here's the real list for 2009. And here's our much better list:

  • Ariella
  • Bill
  • Cecilia
  • Danny
  • Eurydice
  • Fred
  • Georgiana
  • Hank
  • Iolanthe
  • Joe
  • Kimberly
  • Larry
  • Mariana
  • Ned
  • Ophelia
  • Pete
  • Qadira or Quetzalxochitl
  • Ron
  • Stephanie
  • Tom
  • Ulrike
  • Vic
  • Wynona {The official list stops at W, but we don't.}
  • Xavier
  • Yolanda
  • Zeke

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Well-packed staples:

We ordered 5,000 tiny staples for our mini "Tot 50" stapler. They fit easily into a package about 3/4 of a cubic inch in size. Now I'm sure you will agree that staples are pretty robust. They're not likely to get damaged in shipping. But our vendor wanted to be sure, so he shipped them in a box large enough to hold a reasonable amount of packaging material. Here's a photo of the box, with the staples inside it. Egregious excess.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Sit down! Is your father a glazier?

My mother's family was in construction (father, brothers ...). She said that when she was young, if you blocked somebody's view, they would say "Sit down! Is your father a glazier?" (If you don't get it: the idea is that if you want to stand in front of somebody, you ought to install a window in your body for them to see through.) When they said that to my mother, she would reply "Yes."

Tuesday, August 18, 2009 (under construction):

Great thanks to those of you who clicked through to my website. Google now has it properly listed again. Update:And thanks to Elaine for getting me to correct this entry's link.

More Efficient genetic Engineering:

This week's NYT Science Times is chock full of medical studies done on mice that might, just might, affect humans. Exhibit one are studies that do or maybe don't suggest how we can prolong our lives.

The rub is that it's terribly unclear how medicines and treatments that affect lab mice will affect humans. This has been a devilish issue for years, and I want to suggest how to solve this problem.

Our geneticists should devote most of their efforts to figuring out how to genetically engineer us humans so that we will be more like mice. That will greatly improve the odds that medicines helping mice will be good for us as well. And think of the side benefits, such as being able to squeeze through narrow doors.

Friday, August 14, 2009 is not suspended!

Google reported, a few weeks ago, that my website had been hacked and was dangerous to visit. (More precisely, I think, my web hosting company's customer web sites were hacked.) My old provider advised me how to purify my website. But I was in the last month of my contract with them, and I decided to find another provider instead. It took me awhile, and when July began, my old provider suspended my account. I think that being suspended is better than having Google warn people not to visit me.

I'm now rebuilding my website, and you can already see the terrific front cover that the book will have. Please click through here and take a look. A few clicks may help persuade Google that my web site's okay again.


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

I h8 2 edit ths stff!

Sometimes, for my novels, I write down short scenes or paragraphs on my Nokia N800 PDA. There's only an onscreen keyboard, so I abbreviate in every possible way, writing only in lower case, and using SMS-like abbrs. I've discovered that while this breezy writing style saves many keystrokes, it's horrible for real writing. Because eventually I upload my paragraphs, and I have to edit them into readable text. And that usually means I have to edit every single word.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

I'm off my Game:

Most human endeavors require a variety of skills, and the great thing is to use them in their proper balance, rather than to emphasize one at the fatal expense of another.

Take chess for example. A grandmaster spends part of his time visualizing precise positions that may arise in the future, assessing the tactical danger of each. But he or she may spend equal time assessing the strategic value of positions, in order to choose moves that have long-term value. Imagine that you are a chess master, and you are playing an opponent who, as you know, is more tactically skilled than you. You may be tempted to spend more time than usual analyzing tactics against him, and if so, your strategic assessments may suffer. Imagine playing a twenty game match with such a person. Inevitably in the course of the match, you will adjust way from your normal balance of tactics and strategy time. It may be weeks after the match before you have regained your normal equilibrium.

That's the way it has been for me, washing dishes. Our dishwasher died after many years of service. I hardly realized it, but I had developed a typical balance in my dishwashing skills. Now do not imagine, even for a moment, that every dirty dish goes into the the dishwasher. Some will be needed so soon again that they must be washed at once. Others are too delicate or too precious. I had long since fallen into a groove in which some dishes were washed by hand and others queued in the washer. My judgment in determining what to wash by hand resulted in a smooth procession of full dish loads, auto-washed in time to meet our needs.

And then we spent two weeks without a working dishwasher.

I learned to wash everything quickly, so that the sink never piled up to a depressing height. It all went well, I thought.

And then we got a new dishwasher. It's very nice, really. But it doesn't fill up fast enough. That's my fault, of course. I'm washing too many dishes by hand. Too often, I fail to appreciate that a certain dish must go into the dishwasher.

The sure touch I had in the past is lost. I'm off my game.

Friday, August 07, 2009

If you can study the Rorschach ...

Wikipedia now has a detailed article describing the Rorschach Test, and how it is interpreted. The article is over 5,000 scholarly words long. What does it mean that this information is now online and accessible to anyone? Here's what I think: if you can understand this entire article, then you are sane, and probably quite boring.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Old Habits ...

Our municipality used to pick up garbage on Monday and Thursday mornings. Months ago, to economize, they cut back to once-a-week pickup on Thursday. You might think it would be easy, even for an oldster like me, to adjust to this change. But it has been very difficult, and here's why:

Years ago I realized that we only needed to put our garbage out once a week. So despite the choice of days, I have put my garbage out for pickup on Monday morning only. The new schedule has forced me to do two things:
  1. Do not put out garbage for Monday (easy to remember).
  2. Put out garbage for the unfamiliar day of Thursday (very, very hard).

Friday, July 31, 2009

Malted Coffee:

How do you feel about malt flavoring? I really like it, so I tried putting about two tablespoons of malted milk powder into a cup of coffee. (I wouldn't do this to $20/lb coffee, just to supermarket coffee.) The result was delicious for us malt lovers. You can buy decent malted milk powder (Carnation) in most supermarkets, but I'm enjoying this brand: CtlColfax. (I paid less than retail, and avoided shipping costs, by buying a full can from a local ice cream store.)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Free MonsterApocalypse!

MonsterApocalypse is a tabletop game played with monster figurines. The makers of this game recently developed a new strategy guide. When the published guide was shipped to the USA to be sold, it was impounded by ... you'll never guess ... the Department of Homeland Security. After a few anxious days, it was released, and it will soon be for sale.

If you think that it's worth giving up a lot of your freedoms and rights so that our government can protect you better, think about this debacle. We have a fine set of laws to protect us, and most attempts to diminish our rights in the name of security just create new stupid pitholes in our lives.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Now that the powers that be in the world of swimming have removed the ugliness of technology, by banning the LZR Racer Speedo swimsuit, I have invented a better way to put high tech into swimming. In fact, I've invented a whole new sport worth billions, and I'm going to just give it away.

Here's how it works. The goal, as usual, is to race some number of laps in the shortest time. The swimmer is allowed to wear, in addition to his modest swimsuit, a powerful motor of any kind, plus whatever helmet and pads he (or she) deems adviseable. The motor is operated by the swimmer's teammate, the 'navigator', who sits on dry tile with a remote-control pad. The swimmer's job is to get his body and the motor into the ideal position for supreme-speed efficiency at all times, and to manage the turn-around at each end of the pool. The navigator is responsible for accelerating as much as possible during a lap, and decelerating near the end of a lap to avoid killing the swimmer, by breaking his neck in the the fast-rushing water, or by slamming his body against the end of the pool.

I'm afraid the paying crowd (and they will pay a lot!) will be more interested in whether any of the swimmers is bashed to death during the race. But hey! That's why this sport will be worth billions.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The fifty minute mile:

I swam one mile in 50 minutes today. 49'50" to be more exact. This is a personal best for me, and I'm proud of it, although I must admit, it compares poorly with the world mile swimming record, which is probably about 16 minutes.

I swim with no mechanical aids! It's my body, handled as efficiently as I can manage, against the drag of the water in the 25 yard pool. No fins, no gloves, and especially, no high tech Speedo swimsuit that requires 45 minutes to put on.

I am glad that those high-tech swimsuits will no longer be used in world racing. (They've just been disallowed.) I think that in swimming, the challenge is simply to use one's body as best as possible. Shave your hair short, toss on enough swimsuit to be decent, use your body perfectly and race. Swimsuits add a level of technology that is wholly out of place.

But there's an even better reason the high tech suits should be disallowed. If they take 45 minutes to put on, and some time to take off, then a swimmer who regularly practices with them will spend over 400 hours a year doing nothing but dressing, just to be competitive. Think of all the things you can do in 300 hours a year! What a waste, to spend it all in dressing.

Friday, July 24, 2009

A good name for the Open Source Cloud:

There's a lot of controversy right now about how beneficial it will be to move our computing to the "cloud", which means becoming more dependent on others for access to our data, and for its security. There are several cloud alternatives out there already, but I think that so far they are proprietary. I, for one, would feel more comfortable with a "disk drive on the Internet" that was provided by truly open software. In the long run, I would expect such a "cloud" device to be more reliable and more secure.

Best of all, I have a good name for an open source "data in the cloud" device: Gnuage.

Monday, July 13, 2009

How do you get a recommendation ...

When I search for companies and services on the Web, I also try to find recommendations and reviews. It's getting harder and harder to do this, I think. Searching for the word 'reviews' is part of the problem. Many web sites will explain that there are no reviews, but they have many different ways to say that, and I get hits for them all. Recently, I looked for a low-cost website provider. There are lots of reviews for such companies, but most of the positive ones are obviously written by the companies themselves; they sound too much like marketing documents. The negative reviews sound like they are written by asylum inmates who have been utterly destroyed by their provider and have an urge kill.

By the way, Can anyone recommend an inexpensive website provider that will give me an easy-to-use webpage builder, and also let me post integrated pages of my own html?

The good news story today is that I found a new way to find recommendations. We need a company to do some work on our house. For this type of work, there are many companies that are obviously not local, that service our region. I found no reviews for any of them. And in any case, a review by someone in, say, Indiana would not help me much. But while looking for reviews, I discovered that some of our local real estate agents recommend local businesses. In one such page, I found the recommendations I needed. And like everyone else, I know a few more local real estate agents ...

Sunday, July 12, 2009

... and a Bowling Ball:

Keith Malley, of the Keith and the Girl podcast (#998), recently stated that it's always better to have a bowling ball with you. (For those of you who know nothing about bowling balls, picture 16 pounds of heavy solid plastic, about 8.5” in diameter, that you can cradle in your arms, or try to hold by hooking thumb and fingers into its close-set holes.) Keith gave a few excellent examples: wouldn't you like to be able to throw a bowling ball down the aisle of a bus? Wouldn't you like to take a bowling ball with you when you go camping in the woods?

Now it seems to me that there are a few rare moments in life when I would rather not have a bowling ball. And I'm not thinking about that moment when I got married. I'd rather not have a bowling ball:
  • on a unicycle
  • in a plane toilet
  • in a steam room
  • while rock climbing
  • near the top of Mount Everest
  • on a seesaw.

Have I left anything out? Anything at all?

Friday, July 10, 2009

When Eddy Interviewed Ruth Slenczynska:

I think about Ruth Slenczynska every year. She was born in 1925 and (I believe) is still alive. In 1957, she was about as famous as she could get. She was recording and concertizing, and her (ghost-written?) autobiography, Forbidden Childhood, was much talked about. You can listen to some fragments of her marvelous playing here (but be sure to read the terms and conditions on that page; I have no idea whether they state the law accurately).
She had been an awesome child prodigy pianist, and she developed into a very mature pianist. The pressures of being a child prodigy got to her, and she did not perform between (according to Wikipedia) 1940 and 1954.

Her autobiography told the familiar story of a father driving her much too hard to succeed, and a family giving all its love to their other children while expecting her to practice and perform. For me, the most memorable anecdote in her book concerns her father's parsimoniousness: when the two of them traveled to her concerts, he always shared a hotel room with her. But one day the clerk listened to her father order a single room; and then the clerk said, "the young lady will require her own room." And after that she always had her own room.

I can't remember Eddy's last name. He was a friendly, middle-aged fellow with some knowledge of classical music, and he talked his way into running an interview show on one of New York's classical radio stations. My (pianist) aunt Lucy knew him and regarded Eddy as a bit of a confidence man. Of course, in 1957, there had to be an interview with Ruth Slenczynska. I believe her recording of all 24 of the Chopin Peludes Op. 28 had recently been issued to acclaim. In the interview, Eddy asked Ruth which prelude was her favorite. She replied that she had no favorite. Surely, he said, she must prefer one of them. She replied that they were her little children, and she was their mother. And like any parent, she loved them equally. Eddy could see where this was going, and he gently commented that a parent might prefer one child to another. "No," she said, "a parent always loves all the children the same."

Thinking most definitely of Slenczynska's autobiography -- most of his radio listeners were doing the same, I'm sure -- Eddy said, "I've heard of cases where a parent might love one child more than another." Ruth Slenczynska went right on denying that such a thing could ever happen, throwing the accuracy of her own book into doubt.

By the way, I'm older and wiser now, and I can see how Ruth Slenczynska could have ignored her own painful family experience while insisting that any mother will love her children all the same. What seemed embarrassing to me then, now seems poignant.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Little Birds for Michael Jackson:

I shall not partake of the memorializing for Michael Jackson.

I'm biased. I love many kinds of music, and I believe that hearing must be the primary sense that perceives it. Live performances are wonderful, and the eye is a great aid to enjoying them; but live performances seize all of the senses, and sight is not the primary one.

Michael Jackson's great skill in dance and movement, and his creativity, helped to kickstart the age of music videos. These strange creations, in which, when we must hear them without seeing them, we will inevitably try to imagine them as they were shown to us, are at best a sidestep on the grand march of music through the millenia.

Music videos, and Michael Jackson (indirectly) damaged the career of a much finer composer and musician: Stevie Wonder, whose blindness made him unsuited to this era of video. (I'm sure Wonder holds no grudge; he has collaborated with Jackson, and he sang at Jackson's memorial.)

But enough of the music; let's consider Jackson the human. For many years, every reference to him has reminded me of a short story by Anaïs Nin, the title story for one of her books. It's called: Little Birds.

Friday, July 03, 2009

The Lemon Malted:

I recently purchased some excellent malt powder, and I was naturally reminded of my adventures, many years ago, with the Lemon Malted.

I've always liked the taste of malt powder, so it was quite a natural thing for me to order a “malted”, rather than an ice cream soda, wherever malt powder was available. (As far as I can determine, a “malted” is just an ice cream soda to which malt powder has been added.) When I was young, I always looked for opportunities to demonstrate what an oddball I was, so once I requested a Lemon Malted, that is, a lemon ice cream soda with the special addition of malt powder.

How do you think malt would affect the taste of lemon? I've drunk this malted several times, and the result can be quite sophisticated, with the malt flavor subtly changing the quality of the lemon. But a lemon malted can also taste like cheap beer. My great dream was that some day, when I ordered this drink, the restaurant I requested it from would realize what a great drink it was, and add it to their menu.

The last time I ordered this drink, I watched with gathering excitement as the waiter prepared it. I could see he was making an extra-large batch, and when he poured my drink, he poured what was left over into a separate glass. He brought my malted to the table, and it was good, one of the better renderings of my drink. A minute later, he was back with the second glass, and this is what he said: “We were really curious what your lemon malted was like, so we made some extra and tasted it. We all think it tastes terrible. Would you like the rest?”

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Another great secret about cooking with eggplant (barbecue sauce):

Morningstar Farms has introduced a new product to its line of soy burgers. I tasted it and realized that I was eating their usual soy product, steeped in barbecue sauce. I figured I didn't need to buy their product for this, I have my own barbecue sauces. The first thing I tried was this:

Zap a thick slice of eggplant in a microwave. cover with barbecue sauce and eat. Delicious. (Our incredibly weak 450W microwave requires two minutes for this.)

Barbecue sauce is great with almost everything. To think I used to assume it should be reserved for barbecues! Try it on a cheese sandwich. Why not? It's good.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

My Little disfunctional Margie:

Gale Storm has just died. I almost hate to admit it, but I was a little too young for I Love Lucy, and "My Little Margie" came along at the right time for me. I watched it every week. I've looked at some of the ink about this show on the internet, and I think the reviewers and historians have missed a central point about this show: it was one of TV's earliest forays into the Dysfunctional Family sitcom. Tolstoy probably has the best explanation of why there are few normal families in TV series, but it took the networks a while to discover how much fun they could have, when they left "normal" far behind.

Margie's (Gail Storm's) "family" consisted of a widowed father and a grown daughter. The episodes, again and again, revolved around attempts by the father and daughter to "get even" with each other. The tricks they wanted to play got more and more elaborate. The "getting even" premise was so routine that you tended to accept it as normal relations, although -- think about it -- it was bizarre. Here's an obit for Gail Storm, and here are two analyses of: My Little Margie.

Monday, June 29, 2009

A funny think about concordance programs:

I need a program that will take a plain text version of my novel and list all the words I use in it, with a count of how many times each word appears. It's likely to be called a concordance or index program of some sort. I've been searching for one on the web, and the search results are very frustrating, for an interesting reason.

I hunted for the same program about two and a half years ago. My main problem then was that I found commercial programs that cost too much, considering what they would do for me. My current problem is that I can find many concordance programs on the web, but they almost all seem to have a different goal: to enable people to detect plagiarism, by comparing phrases in a paper to phrases on the web. I have never worried that my own writing would be targeted by plagiarism. This "side door" plagiarism inconvenience is ironic.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Michael Jackson and 24/7 news:

Michael Jackson's ambulance got him to a hospital, and then one of the TV news networks had its "breaking story." They newsed about MJ continuously, stopping only for ads. He may have been dead before he got to the hospital, but that put no dent in the amount of speculation and on-the-spot reporting that fueled this network's on-and-on "stories." As one comedian put it: "I've been told that there was other news besides Michael Jackson, but I don't believe it."

The network's overreaction to this story just has to be added to the long, long list of events that herald the end of civilization as we know it. Beam me up.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Stop Password Masking:

Jakob Nielsen has made an eloquent statement at Stop Masking Passwords!. He martials excellent arguments for stopping the dumb practice of making it hard to see what password I'm typing. Stop and think for a moment: how often is a miscreant watching you type a password? How often has an unexpected keyboard response driven you crazy when you entered a password? There's more to say about this issue, and Nielsen says it well.

I believe the practice of masking passwords began when people typed passwords on PAPER. In the 1960's, the usual "terminal" that accessed a computer system was a teletype. Everything you typed appeared on its paper printout. Before you typed a password, the computer printed and overprinted to make an ink-black region in which to type.

I would like to see a button next to a password field that I can click to "generate a mask." But masks aren't the perfect solution to anything, as you know, if you've ever typed your password in the 'name' field by accident.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Doing time in the Unemployment Office:

I was unemployed for a few months in 1985, and so I enrolled with the state of NJ for unemployment benefits. This office treated the unemployed like cockroaches. We had to stand on many long lines, with no place to sit. They hadn't heard of "take a number and sit down." After the first time there, I always brought my own folding chair. When people saw me sitting, they felt I was 'beating the system', and they cheered me.

At last, I queued up on the longest line, to get an actual check. When I got to the front, I faced a tired old lady, murmuring in a singsong voice, "our computers are down, we have to do everything the slow way, you'll have to wait ..."

I told her, "I'm a computer programmer. I know how frustrating it is when computers go down. I sympathize with you."
"No!" she screamed. "You CAN'T sympathize with me!"

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Microsoft is a piece of Merde:

It's great to have a blog. It gives you a great place to bitch. I just tried to sign up for Windows Live. Microsoft requires me to type in 8 characters that it shows me in a hard-to-look-at scribble. I tried ten times before I succeeded, and each try required thought. Their stupid letters and digits were very hard to read! Along the way, I tried their alternative, listening to almost incomprehensible audio.

When I finally got the letters and digits right, I got an error, telling me that Live signup is not working now; it asked me to try later. OOOOOOOOhhhhhhh ....

Weird (a dog):

A large dog with bristly white hair has appeared in my dreams: just three or four times, this spring. Each time, the dog and I have rehearsed the same scene: it approaches me warily, snapping its jaws, aggressive and unfriendly. I hold out a hand, making a fist with my thumb inside, guarding all my fingers. The dog sniffs my fist and licks it. And that's it.

In last night's dream, I met the dog's owner, a slim young man. It seemed important to persuade him that his potentially dangerous dog must not be allowed to run off-leash. I have no clear recollection of this conversation, but I must have been too persuasive, beacause -- later in my dream -- I discovered that the owner had had his dog killed.

I wonder if I will ever dream about this dog again.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Phone Alarms:

I have a simple, old, cheap cellphone. It has alarms, so I assume that every cellphone does these days. You select the time for an alarm, and then – of course – you select any of your ringtones to announce the alarm.

It took me a while to discover how handy these phone alarms are, but now I use them a lot. I finally realized that they are the answer to an age-old problem: how to get out of a meeting, or some other situation that you wish to escape from. The old-fashioned way was to ask someone to call you at, say, 10:10. Your meeting has barely started when your phone rings. You pretend to talk to your confederate, and then you look up and say to the others, “Sorry, I've got to go.”

Today, you don't even need a confederate. You just talk to one of your phone alarms.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Email before SNDMSG:

Shaun Nichols and Iain Thomson wrote an article that proposes to list the top ten industry-changing software applications. I wouldn't dream of arguing with their choices, since they are getting a ton of comments on that subject. Nor do I quibble with the idea of naming the ten most important advances. Articles about "the N most X ..." tend to be “dug” to the web site. One of these days, just for the publicity, mind you, I might do a photo essay on the ten most common types of lint that collect in a gas dryer.

Item #4 on this list is “SNDMSG”, a 1971 invention. Here's what Shaun Nichols says, in part: ... a nifty little program called SNDMSG. The program allowed users to send messages through ARPAnet to users on computers connected to other networks. In other words, Ray Tomlinson invented email.

Only Ray Tomlinson didn't. I can testify that I was one of thousands using an email application in January 1968, and the technology I used was available in 1966. (The Wikipedia article on Email mentions Email on mainframes in 1965.) SNDMSG enabled people on different computers to exchange messages. But in the 1960's many, many people used teletypes to dial into to shared computers that acted as servers for email. We exchanged technical messages with our peers, coworkers and customers, and no one cared how many computers were involved in the process.

I might just mention two more things about email in the 1960's: It was slow (ten characters received per second). And, there was no such thing as spam.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

My Email is ...

Many people find clever indirect ways to describe their email address, so that some robotic sniffing program is unlikely to harvest it and send them spam. I'm not one of these people. I've tried to be rather public and accessible. And that's a pity, because I accidentally (let's call it a typo) found a new way to obfuscate my email. Please mail me at: .
Got it?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Payphone with a restroom:

There are hardly any payphones left these days, but before cellphones came along, they were quite useful. It always fascinated me that restaurants provided a bank of payphones in a relatively private hallway near the restrooms.

Now suppose you needed to go to the bathroom, but you hated to admit that to the people you were dining with. You could say, "I need to make a phone call," and you could disappear, none the wiser.

Even better, suppose you wanted to make a phone call, but you didn't want anybody to know what you were doing. (Use our imagination here.) You could say, "Excuse me, I need to visit the bathroom," and you could disappear, none the wiser.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Gifted Athletic Peasants:

In April, William C. Rhoden wrote several columns for the New York Times about college recruiting violations and efforts to prevent them. I wrote to him on April 12, but sadly, he did not reply. I have very strong feelings about these attempts to keep honest rewards out of the hands of college athletes. Here's (approximately) what I wrote:

Dear William Rhoden,
I've been reading your columns on recruiting, and I believe you will have a sympathetic ear for a most important observation about major college sports: the players on these teams are employees. Most of the scandals, recruiting violations and “cheating” among coaches and alumni all arise from one simple matter: the desire of the colleges to keep most of the profits of major sports to themselves.

It's a myth that the players are “amateurs”. They work forty and more hours a week, and they work hard to perfect their abilities so that their college can rake in reams of money. In fact, these players deserve to be recognized as the stars who make their medium a success. They are entitled to the same percentage of total income as the athletes in pro sports. What a difference it would make if colleges were forced to pay their sports employees their fair share:

Alumni would probably fail to back their teams with the same gusto. The myth that these players are 'students' (not employees) stands behind many major alumni bequests.

Colleges would no longer see football and basketball (etc.) as big business opportunities, once the employees got their fair slice. Colleges might go back to offering truly amateur sports as a good way to balance real studies. (As my Alma Mater, Columbia, says: a sound mind in a sound body.)

Please bear in mind that every 'recruiting violation' you report on is yet another attempt to keep college athletes from gaining even the tiniest pittance of profit beyond their college scholarships. “Can I have some more, sir?” Evidently, NO!

Friday, May 08, 2009

A Culinary breakthrough with sour cream:

I'm sure I'm not the first person to get this idea, it's so simple and delicious. And low-calorie, too. And you can vary the recipe to suit your taste. You'll need a hand-blender or a hand mixer for this.

Pour six ounces of Diet Coke into a twelve ounce glass.
Add 1.5 tablespoons of sour cream.
Blend and drink.

You should start the blender at a slow speed, so that the soda does not avalanche out of the glass. You may wish to speed the blender up when the soda is under control. Very satisfying, for about 45 calories.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Baby Shaker Furniture:

I enjoy the TV quiz show “Wheel of Fortune”, especially their use of “before & after” phrases. WoF is a quiz show in which contestants gradually discover phrases by guessing the letters in them. “Before & After” refers to run-on phrases, like “May I spend a penny for your thoughts.” The show's writers are very clever at thinking up before & after puzzles.

Monday, April 27, 2009

This is dedicated to the one I ...

My cousin Michael, about five years older than I, had a wry sense of humor. But on one occasion, instead of dealing a gently acid punch line, he fed me a fine setup. I'm almost embarrassed to toot my own horn here, but in the interest of Historical Accuracy, I shall relate this incident.

Michael was visiting my family. While he talked to my father, I sat at the piano, attempting to play the beginning of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. The first four bars are far and away the easiest part of the sonata. In fact, my grandmother told me that this is the way to appear to be a fine pianist: you learn to play those first four measures. At the end of the fourth bar, you rise up from the piano and say, "I'm just not in the mood."

So there I was at about measure three. My father said, "That's a little composition my son is writing. what do you think of it?"
"It reminds me of moonlight," said Michael.
Whereupon I said, "I'm thinking of dedicating it to countess Julia Guicciardi."

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Fourteen runs in the second inning. Fourteen!

The Yankees suffered (or did they? See below) the worst possible insult in their brand new ballpark. Having previously scored nine runs in one inning, Cleveland did even better, scoring 14 runs in the second inning alone, as they beat the Yanks 22 to 4. This game raises an interesting question: how is it possible that the Yanks have never been maltreated like this before, in their 100+ years of history in baseball?

I beieve there's an interesting answer to this question, but let me advise you that I may not have any idea whatsoever what I'm talking about. I suggest that we divide the long, long history of baseball into three eras:
  • Up to about 1940: Leave the starter in, even if he obviously had too much to drink last night.
  • To about 1990: Quick hook, get the relief pitchers in there at any sign of trouble.
  • To the present: don't use up the pitching staff if you can help it.

Now let me explain: Historically, baseball relied much less on relief pitchers. There's an anecdote about Bobo Newsom, a journeyman pitcher who played for many teams for many years, compiling a roughly 50/50 record of wins and losses. One day he was losing 15-0 (see? No reliance on relief pitchers). A teammate said, “Just don't have it today, eh, Bobo?” To which he replied, “How's a guy going to win when his team doesn't score any runs?” Now you may ask why those starters didn't sometimes give up 20 or 30 runs, or 15 in an inning? I suspect that in the old days, every lineup had a few really bad batters, making it easier for a bad pitcher to get out of trouble. There also used to be a bit of courtesy (misguided in my view) that you don't beat up on a team when they are obviously defeated. That courtesy might make a team less likely to try to score more than seven or eight runs in one inning.

Eventually, teams fielded excellent relief pitchers, and used them quickly when a pitcher just didn't have it. Some managers are famous for their 'quick hook', their tendency to relieve a pitcher the moment he appears shaky.

Modern pitching strategy has changed, because teams now have excellent statistics about what happens, over whole seasons, when pitchers are overworked. I heard about the Yankee's game on the radio last night, and then I couldn't wait to see the box score. The game might show Cleveland, in that 2nd inning, trouncing one Yankee pitcher after another. But I suspected that modern baseball strategy was at work. And it was.

Just two pitchers – the starter and the first relief guy – absorbed those 14 runs. The starter was obviously left in there too long, but that happens sometimes; you think he's having a rough start and will settle down, and all of a sudden it's too late for that. The poor relief pitcher who followed him was stuck. His job was to use up some innings so that the rest of the staff could rest. If you follow live baseball games, you will often hear announcers explain that a pitcher is being left in to finish the inning, no matter how many runs it takes, to “take one” for the staff. And that's what obviously happened here.

Now Cleveland did score eight more runs, but I suspect that rest of the Yankee pitchers were not exactly bearing down in concentration, pitching in a lost cause. So all this game proves is that the Yankee's starter, and his first reliever, had a terrible time; even though it looks like an embarrassment for all of baseball history.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

In Which Howard Stern appeared Ridiculous (in 1989):

One day in 1989, I listened to a Howard Stern radio program with some excitement. Intel had demonstrated its first full “DVI” product to Stern, specifically the ability to see motion video on a PC. We knew that Stern was going to plug the product. (I had managed Quality Assurance for parts of the software.)

In the radio show, Howard Stern mentioned the product, and said how excited he was about it. He looked forward to seeing movies and TV on his PC. His sidekick, Robin Quivers, broke in at this moment with a skeptical question: “Howard, where is your PC?”
He answered, “In my bedroom.”
Listening to this, I was really puzzled. What was bothering Robin?
She continued, “And where is your TV set?”
“Right next to my computer,” he answered.
“So?” she said.
“That's not the point,” Howard responded. “I want to see TV on my PC.”
At that time, his words appeared to be a bold bluster, an attempt to keep his mention of our product positive. I had long forgotten this little exchange, but it came back to me today as I thought about all the advantages that are developing now, for TV on the PC. The screens can be bigger, the quality excellent. And there are tons of TV shows available on demand on the Internet. Within a few years, I, even I, may be watching TV on my PC.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

A la recerche du temps perdue:

This story is exactly like Marcel Proust's experience with Madeleines, except for the considerable differences.

When I was young, my mother sometimes served canned yellow wax beans. I have always believed that these are the most disgusting food that anyone has ever made me eat, or even offered to me. I can still remember the metallic taste, plus ... euchh ... something else.

When I was about age nine, I categorically refused to touch them, and I never ate them again. I've had nearly sixty years of peace from canned yellow wax beans. But recently, I got to thinking: Might they taste better these days? After all:
  1. My taste buds don't work as well as they used to, and:
  2. There have been a few billion advances in food processing.

I decided to cook some canned yellow wax beans, to see if, just maybe, they wouldn't be so bad.

So there I was in the aisle of my favorite supermarket, looking for canned yellow wax beans. and not finding them. That does it, I said. Evidently they were so bad, that they just don't sell them any more. Wrong. Eventually I found exactly one brand of them.

While checking out, I told everyone nearby about my plan to revisit this awful food. The woman on line behind me -- she was about my age -- said, "They haven't changed the recipe." I brought them home and forgot about them for several days. Of course I forgot them! Why would I want to eat them?

Then I remembered them. I drained them, heated them in water, and performed the great taste test.

Memories of childhood came flooding back to me. The beans had hardly any taste at all, but I remembered what taste they had very well, and I clearly remembered the titanic fights with my mother when I tried to refuse to eat them. But that faint wax bean taste: it wasn't so bad. I'll tell you what I think:
  1. My taste buds don't work as well as they used to, and:
  2. The awful, awful metallic taste doesn't leak out from the can into the beans anymore. After all, there have been a few billion advances in food processing.

I ate a lot of the beans, actually. Now please, pass me a Madeleine.