Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Our car was hit by a flying washing machine:

I was waiting at an intersection when a car turned onto my road. As it cornered, a small washing machine flew off the truck's low trailer and smashed into the side of my car. Somehow, the washing machine messed up four different parts of our car. Thank goodness it's drivable.

I've always felt that I have a good sense of anticipation. I was watching that washing machine before it began to move by itself, and there was still nothing I could do but collect the other guy's info and make police and insurance reports.

A flying washing machine. Sigh.

BY THE WAY, I plan to turn my computers off tonight, until I learn what the Conficker worm is up to, tomorrow. Let Conficker worry.

Monday, March 30, 2009

PigiGigabytes per Km:

One of the magazines that we subscribe to has a description of an unusual tourist experience, in Israel. After you visit this place, you can take one of their homing pigeons away with you. You put a message in its little carrying thing, and you release it, to return to the tourist spot. When they receive it, they send you an email with your message, to confirm the bird's safe arrival. (I'm pretty sure you're supposed to release the bird in Israel, not after you get off of your international plane flight.)

This homing pigeon thing interests me as a type of communications pipeline. I cut my computer teeth on terminals that transmitted data at ten letters per second. I've utilized many other speeds, including 300 bits per second, 1200, 9600, DSL and T1. And I've sent and received data on densely packed media, CDs and tapes. As many people have pointed out, a delivery of a bunch of CDs overnight can actually represent more speed than a T1 line, or even HDTV over the air. Noticing the various data speeds that we have to live with can be fascinating!

So naturally I thought about filling a little 32GB chip with data and letting the homing pigeon carry it home. That would be yet another communications media, and another interesting speed.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

This way and tha about:

I've been experimenting with something, and I think it's interesting enough to talk about. Suppose you had written this phrase: “she looked this way and that.” You decide to change it to: “she looked about.” How do you type in your edit?

Chances are you will highlight the words 'this way and that' and type 'about'. The new word will replace the highlighted ones, unless you're using a bizarre editor. Done.

But you retyped the 't' at the end of the phrase, didn't you? Isn't that a waste? Over a lifetime, those extra keystrokes will add up. And it gets worse. If you want to replace 'exacerbated' by 'stimulated', should you carefully highlight 'exacerb' and type 'stimul'?

There are two really interesting issues at play here. The first is that your word processor is likely to make it easier to highlight full words. So you have to consider that highlighting just part of a word wastes time, unless you get really good at it. The other issue is that you can probably type 'stimulated' faster than you can type 'stimul'. You have a finger memory for words and word-parts that you have typed over and over. You can type them again, fast, without thinking. The business of typing partial words requires thought.

Nonetheless, I'm trying to do it; I would type 'stimul'. The key to productivity here is planning ahead. Although I can normally type 'stimulated' faster than 'stimul', that's not the case if I think ahead about exactly what I need to type. And I have time to think ahead, while I'm highlighting the letters to replace!

This little blog entry has wasted all the time I could possibly save in my life, with all these editing shenanigans. So there!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A la recerche du temps perdue:

This story is exactly like Marcel Proust's experience with Madeleines, except for the 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 canned yellow wax beans.

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

I remembered them this morning. 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 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. I need to get that yellow taste out of my mouth.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

There was a little man:

My father used to sing a certain silly song. I wondered whether that song was, by chance, dropping out of sight forever, so I looked it up on the Internet. No fear, it's here. My link points only to the words, but it looks like the melody will survive okay as well. Here's a sample of the lyrics:
The chambermaid came to my door
"Get up, you lazy sinner!
We need those sheets for table cloths
And its almost time for dinner."

Monday, March 23, 2009

Exxon Office Systems: The gigantic database.

Exxon Office Systems (EOS) lost an immense amount of money for Exxon while trying to establish itself in the Office Automation business. Exxon threw in the towel in 1984, but before that, EOS operated the third largest IBM computer installation on the East Coast. (At least, that's what people said.) At that time, IBM mainframe systems were easy to expand, because you could always add (expensive) online disk storage. EOS added a ton of this storage. Maybe their sales were so poor that they had to pay salesmen high salaries. But they added to their operating costs by keeping a data base of every product sold: its location, its owner, its warrantee status, and its (often extensive) repair history.

EOS had no criteria for removing information from this database, it just grew and grew. One director at EOS was particularly annoyed about the cost, for two reasons. First, he thought that there's no point tracking the location of a piece of equipment that any adult can carry around. The equipment that EOS tracked – small printers, tiny Fax machines, typewriters and word processors – was all highly portable. Second, every time a product was sold or maintained, this database had to be updated, at a cost of – get this – $30 per entry (in 1982 dollars). EOS products required a lot of maintenance under warrantee, so this data base was a cost killer. And it was not at all clear what benefits it brought to the company, because Nobody was datamining for marketing strategies, or for ways to hold down costs.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Perfect the first time:

As I write and edit my fictions, I submit chapters to a website for comment. A few fine people then rip my work apart, showing me all the places I wrote ambiguously, left something out, forgot to state the obvious, made my characters act irrationally, misused words and syntax, etc. (This is a very friendly and constructive process, we do it to each other.) Over and over I've submitted a piece, feeling that it's really good, only to be shocked by the length, depth and perception of the critiques I receive.

This week, something special happened, I think. I submitted a piece, and almost all the critiques were short. That tells me that either my critiquers are falling asleep, or that – hooray – there wasn't much to criticize. All of which reminds me of a much more interesting experience.

I started writing computer programs in 1961. Throughout my career, I have often been asked to write a very small program to do something useful. It occurred to me early on, that I ought to be able to write a perfect first draft of a small program, something that would compile and run perfectly, in my first try; no edits or corrections required.

Each time the need for one of these small programs arose, I tried hard to polish it off at one shot. Usually, I failed to get past the compiler for some stupid typo or other, and then there might be a little debugging to do. I've faced this challenge in assembly programming, and in many different software languages. I've succeeded a few times, but the sobering fact is that it took me more than twenty years to conquer this little challenge for the first time.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Oops ...

In the 1970's, I worked at a small company whose four owners swore. One of them was a Cuban who simply substituted f**k or s**t for any English word that escaped his momentary grasp. The others reached for the old Anglo-Saxon when anything went wrong. I got used to it, maybe much too used to it.

In 1978, I went to work for Exxon, and after a while they folded me into their new “office products” company, called Exxon Office Systems (“EOS”). Exxon was a polite company. I quickly learned to take all my swearing off the table.

After this EOS company was created, I often went to liaison meetings at its other division, especially the typewriter/manufacturing division south of Philadelphia. At the time, this group's hot product was an Inkjet printer. Exxon owned some promising Inkjet technology, and it made sense to get this invention into a printer. This would be one of the first Inkjet printers. It was full of other inventions as well, and it was really tough getting it to market. The schedule slipped and slipped.

These schedule slips were agonizingly poignant. Everyone knew that HP would soon bring its first Laserjet printer into the world. The Laserjet was (correctly) expected to sell for slightly more than Exxon's Inkjet. We knew that the HP would also be more reliable, cheaper to maintain, and produce better copy. Exxon's goal was to get its Inkjet printer out there first, to sell enough to recover its development costs. Our Inkjet sales would fall off a cliff when the HP came out. (I know that that's a lousy marketing goal, don't get me started.)

The product manager – I'll call him Carl X – had to deal with a lot of complaints about slippage that he could not control. And he had a sore point: EOS marketing kept predicting how many printers he could sell, but Carl knew their figures were phony, because the marketers were fearless about predicting what they could sell before the printer would be available.

So there I was, with forty managers, at a regular printer monthly status meeting. After Carl explained the most recent reasons for delay, the VP of sales told us all that he had just returned from a big computer conference. He said his sales people had told him they could have sold a couple hundred Inkjets if they had already been available.

Carl responded in fury, a loud shout, asking, “And how many units will they sell if I give it to them next month?”

Only that's not exactly what he said. His actual question was full of more explicit expletives than I heard in the rest of my six years at Exxon. His question hung in the air, in palpably shocked silence. And into that silence, I uttered the only sentence that I ever spoke at a printer status meeting. My comment went to the heart of what everyone was thinking: that even a month could make such a difference, for greater sales, or perhaps as the beginning of disaster. I think it was pretty good, because it got a laugh. Here's what I said:

It's all right Carl. You missed the window.”

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


In my first year of college, I started Columbia's “Contemporary Civilization” (CC) course sequence. This was two years of reading source documents important to the development of Western Civilization, thinking and talking about them. Class discussions tended to be pretty bleak, especially when no one could bear to do the assigned readings. One Wednesday morning, hardly anyone was willing to answer the professor's questions. Finally he just looked at all thirty of us and said, “Gentlemen, how many of you did the reading for today?”

Three quarters of us raised our hands. He looked at us incredulously and said, “Honestly!”

Almost everyone dropped his hand. He looked at us even more incredulously and said, “The rest of you were lying?”

(If you're wondering: I had the sense not to lower my hand.)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Other Kind of Cruise Control:

For the first time in my life, I own a car that has Cruise Control. I've rented many such cars, and I was really looking forward to it. “CC” is still the best way to make sure that you don't drive twenty miles over the speed limit unintentionally, and it's very restful. But that's not important now.

We bought a car that would get good gas mileage. And it does. But not on Cruise Control. CC keeps your car going at a constant speed, more or less. It uses a lot of gas to go uphill, and it rarely coasts enough to lose speed while minimizing gasoline use. We need the other kind of Cruise Control.

I want to tell my car to try to drive at a given speed. And then I want it to cruise such that it uses as little gas as possible, while trying to keep near that speed. I know that in principle, a car computer can do this better than I can. But I wonder what a car would have to know, to do this other kind of Cruise Control.

The interesting question is whether a car's computer would need a camera and a topological map of the US to cruise and conserve fuel. Because when I drive to conserve fuel, I consider whether I'm going uphill or down, what cars are in front of me, and where the next light is. Could a car computer conserve better without knowing what I know?

I'll give you a good example to illustrate the complexity of fuel conserving. Near my home, I often get on a 45 mph road that goes uphill for awhile, then downhill for a long while. When I turn onto this highway, I want to accelerate to 45 mph as fast as possible (well, fast, anyway) to get into the gear that uses the least gas. But suppose I accelerate, and then a car turns slowly onto the road ahead of me? Then I'll have to slow down, and I will have wasted the gas I used to accelerate. (I can look ahead to see if a car is going to turn onto the road; my car's computer would need a camera to do the same. Or maybe my car would have to tune into a "mesh" network to find out what nearby cars were doing.) Similarly, you don't want to accelerate uphill if the traffic light ahead of you is going to make you stop right away. In fact, here's how a traffic light gives you a really hard decision: If you coast to the light (saving gas) but it turns red on you, then you know that you could have saved gas by speeding to pass the light before it turned red. A car's computer, tuned in to a wireless network that reports on the status of nearby traffic lights, could handle this decision better than I do now.

Let's call this other thing “Fuel Cruise Control.” Or can you suggest a better term? I want Fuel Cruise Control!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Book Report: Dot in the Universe by Lucy Ellmann:

I've just enjoyed a book that is so enjoyable, original and fascinating that I want to share it with you: Dot in the Universe by Lucy Ellmann. You can find numerous appreciative reviews on the web. They will all assure you that this is a very funny book. Now it did make me laugh out loud, but it tells a very, very sad story while you laugh. The author has come up with a remarkable conceit that makes her story sneak up on you in an unusual fashion. There are also a number of elegant conceits in her style, not to mention the book's other, um, elegant conceits.

Ellmann has developed a style that lets her shout the realities of life at you so that you devour them like smooth ice cream or delectable omelets. Her writing style involves an unusual use of capital letters that I'm not going to illustrate for you, because you won't believe you could read a book written like that. You have to read ten or twenty pages to understand why she does it, and get used to how it feels. (I told you, she's an original writer.)

Like many fine authors, Ellmann is extremely good at lists. There are many different ways that fictional authors can create effects with finely crafted lists. Here's one of hers. It's not my favorite from the book; most of my favorites are too long for me to want to type in here. And by the way, this list is not part of a tirade against American schools; it's part of a paean to the beauty of American childhood (wink here).

The early years at school in America are devoted to confidence, continence, nap-time, play-time, story circles, show-and-tell, reading, writing, drawing, singing, and the celebration of one goddamn public holiday after another.

For a truly wonderful list, listen to Dot, the heroine, thinking of ways she might die (pp. 36-37 in my edition). A great writer's list looks like it has just spilled out of the subconscious, but more likely, it has been honed and crafted, adjusted, readjusted, postadjusted and preadjusted, until it has rhythm, inner rhythms, alliteration, onomotopoea, word-plays, meta word-plays, and even a message. The lists in this book come fast and furious, and they are great fun to ride. But the book also has plot, characters, and an excellent essay on the Virginia Oppossum.

In summary, if the book was less original, I could tell you what it was like. I recommend it.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Electricity works in mysterious ways:

We have four cordless phones that communicate with a “base” connected to our landline. Each phone can sit in a cradle to recharge. One of the four phones was not recharging. I suspected the battery, but before ordering four more batts (they are likely to all fail at about the same time), I had to troubleshoot the problem.

I moved the bad phone to a different cradle. It did not recharge. I took out the battery for a day and let the phone completely discharge. Then I put the battery back in and tried to recharge the phone. No luck. As a final step, I took the battery out of this phone and another one. I swapped batteries between the two phones and tried to recharge them both.

The phones both recharged and are working fine now. What's the first baseman's name?

(Seriously, except for that joke at the end, I'm not making this up.)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Testing the Economy:

Which way is the economy going to go in 2009? I'm scared to find out. But meanwhile, I'm going to keep an eye on this week's NYT article on maple syrup. The food section reports that two bad harvests and better marketing (overseas) have raised the price a lot, but it's going to skyrocket this year. The causes are meager stocks and rising demand. (The marketing efforts have spurred sales in Asia. Watch for maple syrup in Thai dishes.)

On the other hand, it's quite common right now for the disastrous economy to shrink a market. How can anyone be certain of a rising demand? I love maple syrup, but I'm not going to pay triple the price for it. I'll be watching my local supermarkets for this economic bellwether.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Beethoven's Erotica Symphony (#3):

I have spent many happy hours listening to classical music on Princeton's radio station, WPRB (103.3 FM and WPRB.COM). In ancient medieval times (before microchips and CDs and even tapes), I believe that it normally took two people to operate the station: an announcer and an engineer. During winter vacation, the announcers would go away, and some engineers would keep the station going. They were notably less knowledgeable about the music than the usual announcers.

One of the engineers put on a recording of Beethoven's third symphony, the Eroica. Before he played it, he read the entire back of the record album, which had an analysis of the symphony. Only he didn't call it the Eroica.

The engineer consistently said “Erotica” every time he read “Eroica”. (The first movement of this symphony IS in fact a work of erotica, but that's important now.) Eventually the engineer finished telling us all about Beethoven's Erotica symphony, and started up the music. I called the station.

ME: Are you sure that that symphony is called the Erotica symphony?

HE: That's what it says here.

ME: Take another look at the words.

HE: (after a pause): Oh, S**t!

Sunday, March 08, 2009

I was Arvide:

One of the things I've missed in my life is performing in plays, or – better yet – musicals. I feel that it would have been tons of fun. Unfortunately, I discovered my desire to perform rather late in life to do anything about it, and the possibility of such a time-consuming activity never seemed to fit my life-style. Chances are, I would have been a wooden actor of no interest to anyone. And I had no decent singing voice for musicals until I was in my fifties. But I had my moment.

During the summer, at a summer camp, I played Arvide in the musical Guys and Dolls. I had a lovely ballad to sing, and a decent scene to act in. We put on two performances. Afterward, the director's assistant told me that she had expected me to be a total flop, but I turned her expectations around in one inspired moment.

There's a scene where a few of the gangsters visit the Save-a-Soul Mission, operated by Arvide and his wife Agatha. Agatha goes offstage to prepare coffee. I knew my part, and I knew the musical well, so in the first performance, I knew exactly when Agatha missed her queue to come back onstage. A few lines later, it was time for me to pour coffee, and Agatha still stood in the wings, holding a tray and looking miserable. I ad-libbed, “Agatha, please bring the coffee.” She walked onstage, and all was well.

Ahhh, the smell of grease paint. I don't even know what it smells like.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

A good example of a Law-Bug (in the DMCA):

This post continues a topic I began on February 19.

Another law-bug has plagued us in recent years, that really illustrates what I mean when I say a law has a bug. The DMCA protects the owners of copyright with the ability to make “takedown” notices. The concept is simple: you notice that some website is displaying a picture, video, song, a book text or whatever ; something whose copyright belongs you. You don't want them to display it; you never gave them permission. So you send whoever is operating their website a “takedown” notice, and they must remove it.

The people who wrote this law considered that there might be some reason for the victim of the takedown to reinstate his item, and the law provides a cumbersome procedure for that. They also considered that some nasty outsider might try to make malicious takedowns, so they made another cumbersome procedure, with nasty fines, to deter malicious takedowns. (Not surprisingly, malicious takedowns are much more common than fines for issuing them.)

We know today that it was incredibly stupid of the legislators to assume that almost all takedowns would be issued by lawyers of large media companies who know exactly what they have the rights to. Many companies have used these notices to get rid of any web content that offends them, even content they do not own. Takedowns might be less common if the person issuing a takedown had to do anything reasonable to show a right to do it; but they don't. It's cheap to issue one takedown about one creation, even if you've no right to do it. It's fairly expensive to combat that takedown notice when you know it's wrong.

Bad bug.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Time out for a more important subject:

I just realized that President Obama is having a hard time because he's losing the slogan war. He must have better slogans, or else how is he to fight the charge that he's leading America into Socialism? Fortunately, I would never raise this subject unless I had the answer.

Hey, everyone! President Obama is fighting the war on financial terrorism!

Gaming the Undebugged DMCA:

If you haven't been following my current train of thought, please go back to my Feb 21 posting, A Breed Apart (2), and catch up. Thanks.

The Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) was passed in the year 2000 to protect the rights of big companies that produce audio, video, movies and games. The law provides strong penalties for many actions that people use to take for granted, such as taking a thing apart and seeing how it works, in order to build a competing thing. That's not the worst part, though. The law was written on the assumption that only a few intended companies would ever use it, and of course, they would always use it judiciously. This law should have been debugged.

Hewlet Packard was the first company to find a serious bug in the DMCA, and they used it to block competition in the printer cartridge business for two years. Details of this case and others are here.

HP's clever idea was to prevent other companies from making printer cartridges that would work in their printers. (For many years, you have had a choice of buying HP cartridges, or buying cheaper from competitors.) HP placed a small computer processor in each cartridge and gave it a small program to run. Competitors had to reverse-engineer what this CPU did, in order to produce competing cartridges. Such reverse engineering has, in the past, broken AT&T's monopoly on hopelessly expensive connections to the phone network, and brought down the prices of (IBM compatible) computer hardware. But HP alleged that this reverse engineering is illegal according to the DMCA. We are lucky that eventually they lost this case; the technical issues at law were complex and not easy to call.