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 useit.com: 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 digg.com 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.