Sunday, May 30, 2010

No Captain Video for me:

I was eight or nine years old when TV came to our neighborhood. A dentist was able to afford one of the early 12” console black and white TVs. He invited everyone in the neighborhood to come by anytime to watch. I remember over twenty people viewing the evening news in his living room, some too far back to see.

I was a good friend of the dentist’s sons, so I spent a lot of time there, watching Howdy Doody (with great embarrassment) into my teens, although it was obviously a program for little kids. But before I set foot in their TV-bedecked house, my father made me take a solemn oath: I was never to watch a program called Captain Video. Peruse that link all you want, I doubt you will guess why.

My father’s political views were such that he found an underlying assumption of the Captain Video program truly revolting: the idea that there were sinister forces in the world so powerful, that only one particular man could prevent them from overwhelming us all. I can almost claim that I kept my oath, because I once watched fifteen seconds of Captain Video, and that was it.

By the way, I was free to watch Superman all I wanted. And Batman. So there.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Let the punishment fit the planning for the crime!

Louisiana lawmakers are proposing that burglars who use Google Street View (or similar map aids) to plan a burglary should get greater sentences: an extra year in jail, or an extra ten if such aids were used to plan terrorism. Security expert Bruce Schneier disagrees. He wrote: “Crimes are crimes, regardless of the ancillary technology used to plan them.”

Now I have the greatest respect for Bruce Schneier, but this time, he’s wrong. Burglars should use traditional tools to facilitate their crimes. When they don’t, they weaken society as a whole, by causing us to overreact spectacularly. As a simple example, we will have to ban all children’s toys if criminals keep using them to commit robberies.

The list goes on. Here are a few of the obvious cases:
  • Robbery using toy guns: five years extra on the sentence, and only a toy commode will be placed in the perpetrator’s cells.
  • Using a Vortex to commit a crime. Add seven years to the sentence. (Vortexes are a precious new age resource; it’s unacceptable to waste them.)
  • Committing a crime while using a sexual aid. Add two years to the sentence. (No one should be permitted to encourage a practical use for a sexual aid.)
  • Committing a crime while using meat. Add ten days to the sentence. (The use of meat is likely to make vegetarian burglars feel bad. This is a democracy.)
  • Committing a crime while using a religious symbol. Add six months to the sentence. The issue here is that once the federal government takes control of the crime scene, they cannot favor any religion by leaving the religious symbol in place, so the police would have to choose between defacing the crime scene or favoring one religion over another. Bruce Schneier, can't you see how much trouble these robbers can crreate with their choice of ancillary materials?
  • Using a gun to commit a crime. No problem here. The right of an American citizen to bear arms must not be infringed. (Add ten years to the sentences of illegal immigrant perps.)
  • Using speech to commit a crime. Although the first amendment protects speech, there must be sensible limits. No man should be allowed to cry “Give me all your money” in a crowded bank. The penalty in this case is specified in a secret law. Perps will not be told how much extra time they must serve.
  • Wednesday, May 26, 2010

    In which I do not invent the PIM:

    I’m an optimist. Mostly. But not when it comes to entrepreneurialism.
    On May 12th, I blogged about a company’s errant attempt to get funding to develop an invention, unaware that far greater and more powerful companies were already working on the same thing: the ability to broadcast speeches and other audio wide-spread, over the web.

    I asserted that I had avoided similar traps. Each time I thought of an exciting software invention, I considered whether other companies might be working on the same thing, better financed and with greater people-power. Usually I decided, correctly, that I was not alone in thinking of the invention, and it was unwise to compete.

    Let me remind you how the great myths work in this field. One person, or a few people, put all their spare time into their invention, eventually creating a new and exciting company that makes their fortunes. You’ve read about some of these, and the stories are newsworthy, because they are rare. The more common experience is that all that labor comes to naught, leaving its “inventors” trying to remember how to get a life.

    Of the several inventions I considered and set aside, my favorite is the PIM: the Personal Information Manager. Quite early in the history of the PC, it became obvious to me that people would pay for a good program to make it easy to keep track of contacts, phone numbers, action items and appointments. I even did some trial programming, making a skeleton PIM for my own use. This application fascinated me, because a great deal of the challenge lies in the user interface: you have to make it ridiculously easy to enter contact and appointment info, or it will never get entered into a computer in the first place. That means that you need to let the user scribble as little or as much as desired, and the computer has to analyze the user entries to figure out what they mean. Try writing a few free-form appointments, and think about how easy they might be to parse for time, place, date, names, etc. And if you work with a modern calendar program: how many formal fields do you have to fill in to make an appointment? Very few, if it’s a good program. Even today, some PIM software requires too much user “discipline,” and I suspect such programs are under-utilized.

    My own estimate was that I could develop really good PIM software in about fourteen months. I would then have to round up a crew to form a company to publicize it, support it, and keep it evolving. I decided that I needed too much time. The desire for a PIM was too obvious to belong to me alone.

    About sixteen months later, the market was flooded with PIM products backed by well-known software companies and their large marketing departments. None of them benefited by getting there first; they just fought it out for years, while the concept of how to manage personal information evolved into new kinds of programs. If I had developed a PIM product, even a good one, I’m sure I would have been lost in the shuffle.

    Sunday, May 23, 2010

    Emergency Response:

    I apologize up front for having no link to the story that infuriated me, but I really did read it: one of the groups trying to control the oil spill in the gulf said it made no difference whether the spill was 5,000 or 50,000 per day, because they were “already engaging in an emergency response.” The implication was: how much more can we possibly respond? Therefore, it makes no diff.

    But it does. For example, imagine a town by a mighty river. The townspeople know that a flood is coming downstream, likely to crest a foot over the levee, in twelve hours. They rush to the river banks and start piling up sandbags, an emergency response.

    Now imagine a town by a mighty river. The townspeople know that a flood is coming downstream, a twenty-foot wave above their levee-level, and it’s going to crash over them in twelve hours. Nobody wastes time on sandbags. And except for the few persnickety stay-behinds, they get the hell out.

    Some day, we may know what the correct emergency response to the gulf spill should have been. Perhaps we’ll get it right after the fourth or fifth deep well blows up.

    Tuesday, May 18, 2010

    Did we manage without Cell Phones?

    At the Supermarket, I was unable to find the specific pasta my wife wanted. I called her and we discussed the shapes that were available, eventually making a choice. Meanwhile, an elderly couple, also selecting pasta, watched me.

    When I hung up, the woman said, “I see men like that here all the time. Let me ask you a question. How could you ever manage without that phone? What did you do before we had these phones?”
    It’s very simple,” I said.
    “Oh, really?” she replied. “Tell me.”
    “If I didn’t have this phone,” I said, “my wife would have to do all the shopping.”

    My Novel is now available as an E-book:

    I published Raven's Gift Electronically through Smashwords. There are two really nice things about Smashwords. They publish a detailed guide on how to simplify your book to make it easy to read on a PDA, smart phone or book-reader. And they publish it in all the popular formats. Raven's Gift can be downloaded (for a Kindle, Palm, or Nook, say) from here. (You can even read it online there.)

    Monday, May 17, 2010

    A Technological Revolution Misses Pornography:

    How many times have we heard that pornography drives every technological revolution in media and on the Internet? That observation seemed as true as Moore’s Law. And yet we have entered the age of good, clean, blockbuster 3D movies; the porn industry is lagging behind on this one.

    The 3D revolution appears to be problematic for porn in more ways than one. First, pornography has largely moved out of movie theaters and into the privacy of the home. 3D was developed by the movie industry to get people back into theaters. There will – some day – be excellent 3D TV sets, but for now public movie theaters have the edge. Second, there aren’t that many 3D movie theaters. They are expensive to set up, and there’s likely to be more control (for many reasons) on what they show. So there’s not much economic incentive to make pornography to show in a theater.

    The staying power of pornography has appeared to stem from its ability to find an angle, to take advantage of any new thing. But this time, I think the industry is temporarily stymied.

    Sunday, May 16, 2010

    The meritorious “dead end” in Flag Football:

    I can think of few worse ways to evaluate a school sport, than to credit it for producing professional players. An immeasurably tiny percent of college sports athletes go on to professional ball. An even tinier micropercent of highschoolers make it. And yet, in Florida, women’s flag football is being faulted because there is no professional sport for it. The remarkable claim has been made that the girls who play flag football in school do not have the same opportunity as boys, because the girls’ sport cannot lead to a stupendous professional contract. There is no professional flag football, so the sport is “unequal.”

    Well of course, it’s unequal. Unlike boy’s sports, its ranks are not peopled by students who are neglecting all their studies in the forlorn hope of getting that professional contract. That’s is great, isn’t it?

    Friday, May 14, 2010

    Chess Players not fighting fair:

    I’ve been enjoying a fascinating book, Chess Bitch by Jennifer Shahade. (The book comes fairly by its provocative title. Shahade could reasonably have called the book “Chess Queen”; but she wants to memorialize a male Grandmaster analyzing one of his games and saying, “and then I moved my bitch to G5.”) Shahade’s subject in this book is how women compete in male-dominated endeavors. To that end, she’s a remarkably able reporter, giving us her interviewees' actions and responses, even when they conflict with her own ideals.

    Her book is a history of Women in Chess, seen through the lens of women trying to find their place in parts of the world that have allocated bizarre places for them. (A weird example that she points out: up to chess ratings of about 2400, a person who plays cautiously is derided as playing like a girl. But above 2400, a player who attacks uncautiously is the one derided as playing like a girl.) It’s no surprise that she mentions a tournament where a male grandmaster lost to a woman and complained that the woman had gained an unfair advantage by wearing a low-cut blouse.

    That anecdote reminded me of one of mine, from the wild-west days of the Nassau County High School Chess League, in 1958. One of the best players in this league was a young woman, Sheila Magarik. Everyone else was male. When her school, Malverne, played Lynbrook, her Lynbrook opponent was instructed to stare at her breasts in hopes of disconcerting her. After a while she made a crushing move, and as she let go of her piece, she said, “Your fly’s open.” She won.

    Thursday, May 13, 2010

    The Tattoo Question (1):

    At the fitness center, I sometimes see people with tattoos. I suspect there are interesting stories there, but until recently I never had an ice breaker to elicit them. Then I thought of a great question. I’ve tried it three times, and here’s the first fine response:

    Q: How long since you got your last tattoo?

    A: I was thirty-five. That was thirty-eight years ago. I was foolish, I hurt my wife a lot. I’ll tell you how it happened. My brother came by. He said, “I’m going to get a tattoo and I’m a little nervous, will you come with me?” I said sure.
    We drank two beers and we went to the place. I started thinking that the tattoos looked pretty good. I got the same one as my brother. {It’s a floral, cylindrical design, about 5”, on the upper arm.} I got the words “I love my wife” on my tattoo. When we came home, we showed off our tattoos. My brother – his wife’s name was Maria – had the words “I love Maria” on his tattoo. My wife got really unhappy. My tattoo should have used her name.

    Wednesday, May 12, 2010

    A Marketing Embarrassment:

    In the mid-90's, I was the quality assurance manager for a small software company that excelled at compressing speech, making it possible to store the faithful sounds of talking heads in remarkably small files.

    The company officers looked for a way to expand their reach, and they found it: web broadcasts. In order to expand into this (then) non-existent field, they needed money. They managed to go public, simultaneously pitching their secret plans to many venture capitalists.

    In my long software career, I have resisted many temptations to throw all my resources into an exciting breakthrough idea to make my fortune. Each time I got a truly exciting idea, I considered the odds that I was not alone; that others were working in secret to make the same breakthrough, others who might be well-funded. Why should I compete with them, just because I could not be certain they were out there?

    My speech-compression company faced this fix. They were unaware that at least five other companies, bigger and better financed, were aiming at the same goal, and well-known to the venture capitalists who never gave us a second look.

    The desire to get into broadcasting led my company into a fascinating embarrassment. They found a company in Atlanta that was developing software to optimize website distribution, a key ingredient in making broadcasts efficient. This company, which I shall call 'X', sent us a demo that was quite exciting, and officers of our company decided to pass this demo on to select customers as a sample of what we proposed to do.

    As the QA mgr, I had an advisory role in this decision. I was adamantly against it. I argued that we had no contract with Company X, and therefore no way to ensure support, or eventual delivery, of this software. We had had no time to test it, so we knew little of how it might affect our customers’ systems. My opinion floated away in the wind, and we sent the demo out.

    You will never guess what happened, beause real life trumps the imagination, every time.

    Our customers tried the demo, and they got back to us with a few urgent questions. We called X to get answers. Their phone numbers, which we had used extensively the week before, were disconnected.

    Company X had dropped off the face of the earth. Emails went unanswered. We could not find them. And I must say, our officers lost some of the enthusiasm they had had, to partner with this company.

    Company X contacted us three weeks later. They had moved to Seattle, set up for business again, and how could they help us? Oh, hadn't they told us they had been planning to move? What a shame.

    Tuesday, May 11, 2010

    A one, and a two...

    I try to avoid getting political, because I know so little about it. But I want to bring something to your attention. The second amendment to the U. S. Constitution is a single sentence of 27 words. It appears to be more ambiguous than its authors intended, but its import is pretty clear. For a very long time, our legal system has tended to assume that this amendment means what it says; it does not invite hundreds of exceptions, even for the sake of realism and sanity. In fact, as Gail Collins stated in the NY Times recently, terrorists on the no-fly list are allowed to buy guns, because: the second amendment does not invite exceptions.

    Now let’s talk about the first amendment. A longer sentence this time, 45 words. But again, its meaning is pretty clear. How is it that we have collectively decided, over time, that the second amendment must not be excepted, but the first amendment must be excepted and excepted until it barely survives! Is the pen that much mightier than the sword?

    Friday, May 07, 2010

    Europe Bans Qlothes:

    The financial turmoil sweeping Europe may actually be a plot to take your attention away from more embarrassing matters. I have just learned that, at the urging of France, the Euro states have banned an entire class of garments. You can read about it here. Henceforth, no one who resides in a Euro state, or who visits for more than ten metrical (don’t ask) days, will be permitted to wear a garment whose Latinate spelling contains a ‘q’ that is not followed by a ‘u’. A spokesperson (please remember Shoshana kindly) is insisting that there’s nothing religious going on; it’s not discrimination. The goal is to keep European languages free from perverse letter sequences. Among the garments to be banned are the Niqab, burqa, biqini, monoqini and lederqhosen. I understand that some South-Germans are quite upset.

    Thursday, May 06, 2010

    Only One Sandal!

    When I go swimming, I wear cheap, plastic sandals to keep my feet off the locker room floor, and off of the flooring around the pool. I swim at a clean place, but I want to avoid the slightest possibility of picking up a fungus, or warts. So I was terribly upset when I undressed today and took things out of my bag, to discover exactly ONE sandal. “I’ve only got one sandal,” I wailed. A guy nearby said, “You’d be better off wearing none, then.”

    But I don’t know. Wearing one sandal at least protects one foot. And the flooring near the pool is quite painful to a naked foot; it seems to have been designed to force people to don footgear. So I lumped about in one sandal. It felt funny. It must have looked funny. But I’m sure the funniest part was leaving it at the edge of the pool when I went in, next to two PAIRS of sandals. (Hey, where’s the one-footed swimmer?)

    On my way home, leaving the locker room, I looked back, and – oh my gosh! – I had almost left that one remaining sandal in my locker. I took it with me. A good thing, too, as the other sandal was waiting for me in the trunk of my car.

    Wednesday, May 05, 2010

    Proper Bathing Suits:

    At the fitness club, almost everybody wears demure bathing suits to swim. Suits are almost always one-piece. They are designed to conceal and misdirect, not to outline features or provoke. But there are a few whose suits cross the border into the obscene. These suits are all worn by men. They are made of clingy, thin Lycra that leaves you guessing only about the color of their genitals.

    I don’t know what these guys are thinking. (I’m also not sure why the suits are socially acceptable, but I’ve never heard anyone complain.) I believe deeply that every possible type and shade of personality exists, so I suspect that some of these guys are clueless; some are down-and out-exhibitionists; and the rest fall uncomfortably in between. There might even be a few who wear tight Lycra because their mother made them do it.

    Once, a man brought his two sons – ten and five, I think – into the men’s locker room. The older boy made a great show of being disgusted whenever a naked guy came into in view, and he always covered his brother’s eyes, or turned him away, to guard the little one against the awful sight. I wonder how this older boy would have reacted to the Lycra suits; no one wore them that day. But I think he would have reacted the same; there’s just not enough difference.

    Tuesday, May 04, 2010

    Where are we?

    We went to Restoration Hardware today to buy House Numbers so that people can find our house. We picked out a pair of handsome iron digits and called the sales lady over.
    She explained that they do not carry these numbers in stock, but that they would ship them directly to us.
    “How will they know where to deliver them?” I asked.

    She didn’t get it.

    It was a really bad joke.

    Speaking of Restoration Hardware: you probably have tons of paperback books all over your home. Have you ever wondered what they are worth? Well, before giving them away to a book sale or dumping them, consider this: they may be worth seven dollars apiece.

    Take a bunch of paperbacks that are all the same height and width. Tear off their front and back covers. Leave them in the sun for a few months so that they develop a slightly browned look. (Hey, maybe they look like that already.) Then take some rough, ecru twine and tie them into tight bundles of four. Put the more aged-looking books on the outside, and tie them tight enough so that it’s hard to open them enough to figure out what books they really are. Then call them “antique book bundles” and sell them for $29 a bundle.
    Hey, I didn’t make that up. But maybe Restoration Hardware did.

    Monday, May 03, 2010

    A Difficult Closed Captions ‘Translation’ Problem:

    The Comedy channel recently broadcast a 30-minute show by the cerebral comedian Myq Kaplan. In one of his closing jokes, he referred to a show that’s like the Highlanders, only Jewish. What would you call such a show? Myq’s solution was to replace the leading ‘H’ sound with ‘CH’ as in ‘loch’. Now, how do you spell that in closed caption TV text?

    The Comedy channel captioneer came up with, I think, a brilliant idea. It gets the joke across, although it is actually unpronounceable:


    Sunday, May 02, 2010

    Raven’s Gift and the Mets:

    It’s inevitable that for the next few months I will blog frequently about the progress of my newly published novel, and my astute observations about baseball. I believe that most of you would rather tear your eyebrows out in small bunches than read these blog items, so I am posting them to a new blog: RavensGiftAndTheMets. It’s up and running, and it even displays a nice picture of me. Please visit my new blog and see if it interests you.

    The Course of Empire, Destruction (Don’t Embiggen):

    Unlike many of you, I still read newspapers. I opened the New York Times Week in Review today to follow a story, and immediately recognized a painting, Thomas Cole’s, Destruction from his five-painting series, The Course of Empire. I spent some happy hours in front of this painting when I was studying Art 101 in college, and I was astounded by the contrast between the original, which is feet wide and feet high, and the color miniature in the paper, about 4.5” by 2.75”. There are many weaknesses of technique that separate Cole from the big boys, all very evident in this monumental canvas. But all those weaknesses disappear, emphasizing the powerful sweep of his conception, when the painting gets miniaturized.

    John Dvorak’s blog is fond of displaying small pictures, inviting you to click on them to “embiggen”. If you find a way to embiggen this picture, please refrain from doing so. Thomas Cole never seemed so fine. Here’s how it looks in the Times, online.