Thursday, April 29, 2010

Palm, Inc. and Me:

My first book, Raven’s Gift, a fantasy novel, is now for sale at But first, a few words about Palm.

John Dvorak had a Tech Report piece on HP’s acquisition of Palm. He put it this way: HP to buy Palm. Why?

Over at Slashdot, the usual tough commenters got busy on this acquisition. One defender said it’s very simple: HP is buying experience.
But it’s easy to lose experience when you buy a company. The key people could flee if there’s a serious inter-company culture clash, or if HP does anything that looks like a lack of confidence in Palm. In any case, what has the expertise at Palm produced? They lost the PDA market. (I’m biased in their favor, by the way; I LOVED their PDA interface.) They are so-so in the phone market. Their best brilliant move in this century was to realize that people were ready for Netbooks and Tablets. They announced a product, but backed down and never built it, possibly because of how poorly their announcement was received. (They could have been first into this market, too; I wonder how they would have handled it.)

In any case, I’m with Dvorak on this one: HP to buy Palm. Why?

And now, back to me. There’s a question people ask about writing: can anyone learn to write? My own answer seems to differ from everyone else’s: A writer needs to deal with dozens of skills. Most of them are obviously learnable. So mostly, the answer to the great question is: yes. I learned how to get a cover for my book that I really liked. (Thanks, Mary K. Dolan.) I learned how to do final edits, making sure I wasn’t trying to publish a laughably grammatical text. I learned how to deal with CreateSpace, to get published and saleable on Amazon. Now I have to learn (I’m starting absolutely from scratch here) how to publicize my work. (I learned other skills as well. I shudder to think how many.) Ask me in a year whether I’m having fun. But meanwhile:

My first book, Raven’s Gift, a fantasy novel, is now for sale at The “Look inside” feature is working, so you can sample the book at Amazon’s website. And here’s my website for the book.

Getting Personal:

William Porfo was recently abducted by kinky aliens. He’s pretty sure he won’t be able to afford the new Health Insurance plan, and he had an unusual idea to keep his house from flooding in the recent heavy rains. So if he has anything intelligent to say about journalism, I’ll quote him at the beginning of this article.

Journalism has discovered the lead human being. Instead of writing pyramid style (important information comes first), or classical French Newspaper style (please keep reading, news may eventually show up): articles, these days, almost always begin with a quote from a real person.

Now you might think that journalism has thus evolved to the very pinnacle of style, and nothing could possibly be better. But when you’re aware of this style, it starts to look very clunky, unless it’s used well. Eventually, readers will get used to the leadoff-human trick, and journalists will move on to something else. Keep your eye peeled for that warm and friendly person in the first paragraph; the news can’t be far behind.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

All locked up:

I’m terribly sorry. This blog entry is going to get complicated.

I have been using a four-digit lock in the mens’ locker room at the fitness center. Many guys don’t bother to lock their lockers at all. I think that goes beyond trusting, and well into crazy. I want peace of mind while swimming and showering, and an unlocked locker won’t do that for me. Besides, a gang of thieves has been robbing lockers in NYC. If they come out to the burbs, my home town has to be a good target for them. I even keep my glasses locked up. Usually.

Recently I tried a simple key-lock instead of my four-digit lock, and I decided to stick with the key. The trouble with the digital lock is that when I lock it, I have to take a few seconds to randomize the digits. I may need to do that four times a visit, and one can get anxious over a good job of randomizing. The key is simpler and faster to use. As long as you have a safe place for the key.

I tied the key to my swim trunks with a secure knot. So when I come back from swimming, I’m sure to have the key. I open my locker, stash the bathing suit, take out the other key (isn’t this great? My $2.98 lock came with two keys), drape its cord around my neck, and I’m off to the steam room.

Now I have to explain what I do about lockers. The locker room has a scattering of full-height lockers, and nearly two hundred half-height lockers. The half-heights are stacked in pairs, and two of them have the same capacity as a full-height locker. When I first came to the fitness center, I would check every full-height locker to try to find an unused one. This took time, because – remember? People use lockers without locking them. I would walk to each full-height, full of hope, open it and go on to the next one.

Eventually, a clever fellow suggested that I take two half-heights when no full-height locker is free. It’s a great idea, since most of the half lockers are usually empty. I soon found I preferred this, and I always take a pair of half-height lockers. I lock the lower one, and I use the upper one for stuff that nobody would ever steal.

Now let’s get back to what happened today when I went off to the steam room, with key #2 draped around my neck. I breathed a little steam and realized that I had stashed my bathing suit in the upper, unlocked locker. That meant a thief who opened that locker and took a close look at my bathing suit (most unlikely) would find the key to the lower locker. But would this potential thief know what to do with the key? (He doesn’t read my blog, right?) Why should he assume it would fit a different locker’s lock? This thought calmed me enough to enjoy my steam bath, but I soon hurried back and locked my bathing suit in the lower locker.

Now I don’t want to put my bathing suit in the lower locker. My pants have to be there, and the bathing suit will make them wet. But I had another brainstorm, and I think I’m all set for my next visit. I will take two half-lockers that are not near each other. After I swim, I’ll put my suit in the unlocked locker. The potential thief will never be able to match the bathing suit key to my actual lock. (Since he doesn’t read my blog.)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

New shapes and names for Pasta:

Let’s face it, pasta names are getting old, despite the recent “mini” variations. (Here’s a comprehensive list.)We need new names and shapes, and I’m here to help. Someone else will have to help me with the Italian, though. I have no idea how to use those great suffixetti:
Castorbeani – I don’t recommend these. They each contain a little poison.
Fluorescentetti – Mini-fluorescent pasta.
Florencetti – Dense pasta balls. They are gradually sinking into your sauce.
Fungozzi – Mushroom-shaped pasta.
Lamborghetti – Long, thin strands of race car pasta.
LEDetti – Pasta with tiny lights.
Mini Pene – Let’s not go there.
Mordoroni – Pasta shaped like sharp rocks and volcanoes.
Nipplatelli – Let’s not go there either.
Papparazzi – Little camera pastas.
Peanutelli – Don’t cook them. Just pack with them.
Pisateeny – Little leaning pasta pieces.
Porcupini – These are just for show. Don’t bite into them.
Terroristolini – It’s hard to say what these are; do they look like bombs?
Tortelluni – Moon-shaped tortellini, of course.
Vampirini e Zombini – You add a few of these to any existing pasta, and you have a brand new recipe.

I started this blog way back in June, 2003. I used to post six items per week, but in the last few years I have slowed down. One of my goals was to capture the faintly amusing stories that swam through my brain, surfacing briefly in conversation and then disappearing into the muck again. I seem to have largely accomplished that, although old memories still surprise me from time to time. According to Blogger, this is my 1,500th post. There’s still more I’d like to share with you, so let’s keep it going and see what happens.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Waste not, want not. Oy.

I particularly like my current watch. It’s an unusual thing, intended for oldsters who have to take a lot of pills and might suddenly visit a hospital emergency room. It has twelve nameable alarms (I use a lot of them), and a medic-alert button that can tell doctors what I’m allergic to. (Actually, the manufacturer appears to have designed this feature to make it easy for others to steal my identity; the watch asks for my name, address, birth date and soc-sec number, but I’m too clever to enter all that.)

The watch came with a plastic wristband that I have never liked. It chafed. And chafed. But I endured it for almost exactly two years, until the little retaining cross-band on the wristband broke. I declared the wristband unsafe, and I went out and bought a genuine leather watchband that feels wonderful. For $5.98. Why did I wait so long?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

About those Mets:

A few days ago, I blogged about how ashamed I was to have lost interest in Major League Baseball. I’m making a great effort to do better. Here’s a progress report: It’s going to be harder than I thought, and for unexpected reasons.

I’m making time to follow the Mets’ games, especially when they aren’t twenty innings long. But that’s not enough. I have to know the players, and the team dynamics. So I’m reading ink on the Mets, and I’m listening to a good Sports Radio station, WFAN, which covers the Mets a lot.

But that’s not enough. I can’t just view the Mets’ opponents as a dreary stream of faceless competitors. I have to know them, know their stars, know the injuries and coaching issues that make them vulnerable or threatening. In fact, I have to follow Baseball. I’m reading game results, learning about new stats, reviewing schedules...and it’s taking up my time.

I know I’m on the right track, because I enjoy doing all these things. In my life, I’ve known so many oldsters who continue to relish baseball. I looked forward to becoming one of them. But I can’t help noticing that I have to give up other activities to make time for this sport. Baseball is cutting into my new, busy life. In fact, it’s likely that baseball fell out of my life because I didn’t have time to follow it properly any more. I’m going to try to keep up my interest for a while, but maybe I’m just forcing it; perhaps baseball and I deserve an amicable divorce.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Not so fast, Cassini!

An article in the New York Times Science section explains how our space explorer Cassini is being programmed to orbit round Saturn for many more years. Some of the orbits will be really broad and slow. There are two reasons for this, made explicit in the Times’ article. First, the broader orbits will save precious fuel. Second, and this is so incredible, Cassini is being programmed so that it won’t fly past the moon Titan too often. Each time it nears Titan, more people are needed to process the fantastic information that Cassini collects. But we mustn’t spend ca$h on such manpower too often, must we? Our wonderful country is going to collect information about the Universe more slowly, to avoid going over some yearly budget. Patience, patience...

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Major League Baseball Closed Captions:

I felt like an idiot last night. I was watching a baseball game with Closed Captions turned on. The closed captions for baseball announcers are generally very poor. At best, the text falls far behind the announcers and then there will be a big gap to enable a text catch-up. Then the text falls behind and there’s another gap. There are badly mistaken words, and I have wondered whether the real time speech-to-text is being done by a harassed human or a computer program. The reason I feel stupid is that I was always inclined to suspect that the text was coming from a person. Until now.

The baseball announcer was discussing a relief pitcher who got into trouble in the seventh inning. One of his sentences began like this:

Mario Acosta, who had a good sex beaning...

Well obviously, that’s not what the announcer said. But I saw those very words on my TV. The correct words were:

Mario Acosta, who had a good sixth inning...

Now there’s a mistake that any computer can make.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Badge of Pride:

Living and working among programmers, I’ve seen many people wearing wrist braces to deal with their Carpal Tunnel problems. I always felt sorry for them. But not now; now, I understand.

I have my own Carpal Tunnel problem. I did not have the usual symptoms, no numbness or wrist pain, so I had no idea what my problem was. I figured my brain was degenerating, but that may not be the case. I was delighted to get a diagnosis of a curable illness. I’m proud to wear my brace, and to discover what it can do for me.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Art Stabile:

Many years ago I worked in a cheap, two-story office building. My programming required me to go up and down the staircase a lot. It was a narrow staircase in a wooden building, but there was one simple conceit that gave the stairs an airy feeling: the ceiling above the stairs was flat, which meant that you could touch it at the top of the stairs, and it hung way above you (making it hard to clean) at the bottom. The staircase walls were painted off-white, and the ceiling was acoustical tile.

As I walked up and down those stairs, I often tossed a sharp pencil up and caught it. (We used pencils in those days.) A hard throw would make the pencil bounce off the ceiling at a crazy angle. A careful toss from a lower stair (there were seventeen stairs), and the pencil would sail way up, then float back down for an elegant catch.

One day, I tossed a pencil and it just kissed the ceiling. And it stuck there, at a slight angle, its point buried in the acoustical tile. It was more than a dozen feet above my head; there was no easy way to retrieve it. I just left it there.

Eight years later when I visited the building, my pencil still hung from that ceiling.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Answering machine: USB or Wireless:

Our next answering machine is going to be controlled wirelessly from a computer, or else it will have a USB port for managing its memory. Our current machine is is digital, but it is entirely self-contained. When a new message comes in, it’s mini-hell to listen to it, because I have to skip over the first 14 messages to get to it.

Yes, we are saving fourteen messages, some of them over a year old. You can’t imagine how wonderful the associations of these messages are. I would love to copy them to a CD, but I can only do that by recording the machine’s audio output, at a considerable loss of quality. Darn!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Oh, it's hard to say, Eyjafjallajökull:

But in Tonga, that means: no.
Seriously, Americans, I strongly advise you not to try to say Eyjafjallajökull. Not, that is, unless you know how to pronounce Icelandic. You can hear the correct pronunciation here. I'm giving you that link to scare you off, not to help you practice.

The efforts of Americans to say Eyjafjallajökull remind me of a man I worked for in the 70's, an ex-Cuban named Jorge. He was happy to be called 'George,' but one employee decided to respect Jorge's heritage by speaking the name properly. He called our manager Hoarr' Hey' (accent on both syllables).

We Americans do need a pronounceable name for this volcano. We need to be able to discuss it, because its effects may transform our world for years to come. There are very few new words that we find easy to pronounce, but here's a good one: It's the iAsh volcano.

Update: I hope this is a better pronunciation link.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Software Doctor is IN (1968):

In 1968, I worked part-time for the local university’s computer center. One of my duties was to serve at the ‘help-desk’ a few hours each week. People from many departments were trying to harness the mainframe’s power to solve problems, and everybody was new to what they were doing. People would bring in their keypunch card decks and their computer listings, give some explanation and then we would look together at their output, or their code.

My favorite experience as a help-desk person, which repeated itself many times, worked like this: A person would sit down, spread out their listings, and try to explain what they were doing. Mid-explanation, they would realize what they had done wrong. They would then stand up, beaming, and thank me profusely for my help, even though I had never managed to get my mouth open.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Dutch Courage:

I’ve waited many, many years to tell this story. There’s no statute of limitations involved, but I have to assume that people I work with can read my blog, and this story could, let’s say, put a certain damper on opportunities.

I was working as a contract programmer at a fairly large company. My boss, Bob (I don’t even remember his actual name) called me in to help him prepare for a status meeting (with Marketing and his own superiors). His project was going badly. We were way over-budget and behind schedule, and none of us programmers knew when our code was going to be bug-free. I had inherited a lot of code written by another programmer, and discovering what he had omitted or missed was a wild, unpredictable adventure.

We talked awhile about where we were, and then he sent me on my way. His office was set back in a sort of suite that he inhabited by himself. I was a good fifteen feet away from him, having walked down the entryway, when I let myself out. I turned back to look at him, just in time to see him finish taking a swig from a bottle and stashing it back in his desk.

Oh, my God. Was I working for a guy who needed a slug of alcohol to face a tough meeting? (It was morning, by the way.) I really needed to know! As a consultant, I always tried to stretch the work I was hired for into new and longer assignments. I tried to develop good working relationships, and I usually supported my boss in every way, hoping that he would be strong enough to keep me around for more work. I wondered if, at this company, I was backing the wrong horse.

It was going to be easy – but risky – to find out. I knew exactly where he had put the bottle. I just needed to get into his desk to see what it was; after all, my eyes might have played tricks on me. But I had to try to get into his desk when he was not at work; when his desk was unlocked; when nobody would see.

If someone caught me in his office and wondered why I was there, I could cover myself. I typed up a little generic note about a programming problem; I would explain I had gone to his office to leave a note on his desk. As for the rest of my risk, well, it was risky.

I often worked late because we were behind schedule. About ten days later, Bob went home (I was pretty sure) without locking his office. I worked very late, waiting until there were few people, few prying eyes, still in the building. I prayed that a security guard would not come by and lock Bob’s office for him. Finally, all seemed quiet, and I ducked into his office.

I had no alibi if someone saw me open his desk, and as I’ve already indicated, you could see that drawer being opened from the entryway. I yanked on it, hoping his desk was unlocked. The drawer flew open. I brushed a few file folders out of the way, and there it was: a big bottle of Listerine.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The Mets: One more time...

As most of you know, I’m a long time Mets fan. And I consider myself pretty adept at watching baseball games. I can follow what the pitchers are doing, and I can anticipate ballfield tactics as they develop. But last year I seemed to lose interest in the game. I followed few Mets games and paid little attention to baseball.

Perhaps that’s partly baseball’s fault. It was also partly the Mets’ fault. They got so bad, I could not bear to watch them lose. But I kept telling myself that that was a poor excuse.

In the deep past, I rooted happily for the Mets when they won ¼ of their games. I’ve rooted for winning Mets teams, but I’ve also rooted for, and followed, the adventures of boring losers. So why, last year, did the quality of the team put me off? Well, I’m going to try harder this year. I’ve been reading about the Mets in spring training, and I’m reasonably sure that they are going to be atrocious again this year. If I’m still a man with some hot blood in him, I should be able to enjoy watching them pile up the losses in 2010. Shouldn’t I?

Friday, April 02, 2010

iPad, the Destroyer:

Daniel Eran Dilger has written a provocative column titled iPad, the Destroyer. In it, he argues that the iPad is going to kill off a remarkable collection of older technologies. I'd love to give you a sample list, but cherry-picking his list diminishes the depth of Dilger's overall vision. I personally am unlikely to buy an iPad (at least, not for several years), but I think that most of Dilger's predictions are correct.

If you doubt the ability of the iPad to affect the world, consider how fast web-site developers are scrambling to remove the use of Flash (unsupported by iPad) from their sites. And, as Dilger argues, the iPad could actually kill media DVDs. Here are two small, but convincing items from Dilger's article:
  1. The government, and many large companies, use special purpose tablet computers for inventory control, maintenance documentation, etc. The iPad is exactly the right shape and size to replace these much more expensive special computers.
  2. Small-format game machines like the PSP and DS. Great games for the iPad are much, much cheaper than DS and PSP games.

I strongly suggest you read about the big ticket items targeted in iPad, the Destroyer. You'll also get a good look at why and how Steve Jobs has been in the forefront of killing off older technologies.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Accelerate and Brake:

I want to thank Jim Romanesko for this story. At his “Obscure Store” blog, he wrote, and I quote:
Remember when older drivers hit buildings after hitting the gas pedal instead of the brakes? That's been replaced with the-Toyota-did-it! Excuse.
(Romanesko points to this story, and I’m sure there will be lots more just like it.)

In a NYT article, the writer stated that if you think your foot is on the brake but it’s on the accelerator, you’re likely to experience the following disastrous sequence of events: You press down; the car moves; you want to make it stop, so you press down much harder, but your foot is still on the accelerator.

I personally think it’s time to ask the big question: Why not put the brake and accelerator pedals much further apart in an automatic car, and make us learn to put one foot on each pedal? There would be no more pressing the accelerator when we thought our foot was on the brake. (And we could still build the current configuration for people who have a disability and really need it.) I’ve driven with one foot on each pedal, and I don’t see the problem.