Friday, July 30, 2010

Ballmer probably doesn't iGet it:

A reporter named Barry Collins covered a Ballmer speech story about Microsoft catching up with the iPad. Reading just a bit between the lines, it sounds like Ballmer, and Microsoft, really don't get it. Let me make a few points:

Collins says that Ballmer compared the tablet market to that of the netbook, where Microsoft ceded early ground to Linux-based machines before dominating the market. Now I remember how they dominated the netbook market: they made the biggest manufacturers of netbooks offers they could not refuse, to sell Windows versions of their netbooks. So I guess Microsoft will do the same thing here: they will make a deal with Apple to sell iPads running Windows. Not. Stevie B., it ain't tht simple.

Ballmer, again according to Collins, talks of working with various partners to produce various tablet products. That focus will not compete with Apple. Apple's iPad is not a tablet product; it is a computer that has been very carefully aimed at a bunch of markets, and it happens to look and feel like a tablet. Apple (or at least, Steve Jobs), saw these markets very clearly, and made sure the iPad would click with them. A bunch of slate products from Microsoft aren't even likely to reach "me too" status, unless Ballmer and Microsoft's marketing people understand that.

The iPad is easy to understand and use. I hope Microsoft can grok that, instead of working out complex software tie-ins to their many other somewhat incompatible offerings that are aimed at a lot of the same markets. How simple will their tablet/xBox tie-in be?

Clearly, Microsoft is not going to come up with a good iPad competitor overnight. They have to aim at what the iPad will become in three years, not what it is now. Mr. Ballmer, what is that target? Do you have a prayer of figuring it out, and developing that target product now?

The Zune took years to become a respectable product, and it never came close to implementing what its own manager said he expected to offer for it. Microsoft's attempts to conquer the clever-phone market suggest that their view is: Windows first, phone second. How are they going to do better in the iPad market?

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Jailbreaking made (not?) easy:

I don't have to give you a reference for this well-known story: the excellent woman in charge of making governmental exceptions to the draconian DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act) has ruled that it's permissible for iPhone users to "jailbreak" their phone: that is, to install the OS of their choice if that enables them to run the programs they want. This remarkable decision makes sense if you focus on what the DMCA intends to protect. The DMCA appears to make it illegal to reverse engineer any software in order to break or hack said software. But the goal of the DMCA is to prevent such analysis in order to prevent the copying of copywritten material. Apple is taking advantage of the DMCA in order to patrol the apps that can appear on iPhones.

Perhaps what Apple is doing is similar to what HP did when the DMCA became law: HP put a computer processer in their ink cartridges, and when their competitors reverse-engineered how the printers talk to the cartridges, HP sued that they were breaking the DMCA. HP lost this case, because (as I understand it) there was no copyright issue involved; HP had just contrived a way to design hardware to try to take advantage of the DMCA rules. Now if an iPhone user avoids using almost all of the Apple OS in order to jailbreak the phone, where is the copyright violation?

But this DMCA "exception" does not promise to make life easy for the jailbreakers. They are permitted to modify the iPhoine software, but I think Apple is still permitted to change it back at will, in order to put the jailbreakers at a disadvantage. Apple just has to have a reason for forcibly downloading new versions of their iPhone software, other than just punishing the jailbreakers.

Expect frequent OS upgrades from Apple.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Elephant Steak (Grandma Paula again):

My Grandmother Paula had a strange, inventive and biting German sense of humor. I remember far too few examples of what appealed to her comedic sense, but I have just remembered a joke that she loved to tell. It gives me great pleasure to publicize this joke on the internet, but please be forewarned: you're not going to like it.
Two guys decided to open a restaurant. The creative one decided that he had a great way to get them some publicity: their menu would offer, in addition to the usual sorts of food: elephant steak.

The practical one was aghast. "But we don't have elephant steak," he said.

Don't worry," the creative one said. "Just put it on the menu and leave it to me."

They opened for business on a balmy evening, and wouldn't you know it? The first customer who came in ordered elephant steak. The practical owner had conniptions. He asked his partner, "What are we going to do?"

The creative partner went to the customer and asked him, "Where's the rest of your party?"

"My party? Why, what do you mean? I've come alone."

"Alone? Well, you don't expect us to slaughter our elephant just for you, do you?"

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

I received a request from Lucas Meyer at, requesting that we exchange links. As an ex-volleyball player (I still watch it on TV), I was particularly fascinated by the page on Footvolley in Rio. 'Footvolley' seems to be volleyball on the beach for soccer players, somehow using the feet and heads instead of hands. I can't wait to see how this game is played, I thought. But I didn't have to wait. See Youtube here, and here. (Yes, it's even played in the USA.)

Sports salaries and Winning Teams:

The Miami pro basketball team managed its salary cap in such a way that they could hire three stars who want to play together. News reports on this coup mentioned that the rest of the Miami team will have to play for peanuts, to fit under the team salary cap. It takes more than three people to play basketball, so there's a fasinating possibility that the three new Miami stars may not make a winning team.

I have always believed what sports stars have always said: they want to earn lots of $$$, but really, truly, they want to win championships. If this is true, how dumb are these players? I have two questions for them that seem to have no answers. I've wondered about these questions for a long time, but the Miami deals really put them in the spotlight.

Question #1: Why didn't LeBron James and the other two stars lower their money requirements? Why not try to earn 80% of what they got, in order to leave Miami with more money to fill out the team? What are they thinking? Earning every last dollar in order to make the rest of their team as weak as possible?

Question #2: Who will be willing to sign on with Miami for those minimal salaries? Hey, I know: Veterans worth ten times as much (or even more), who know that by filling out a strong team with these stars, they are likely to win a championship. Isn't this a no-brainer?

By the way, let's bear in mind that winning championships enables players to make more money for the rest of their lives. Better advertizing deals, more successful TV & movie careers, and even more profitable car dealerships. Why don't these guys act like they want to win?

Oh, wait. I know. They just want the money.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Three Turtles creep into a:

My Grandmother Paula had a strange, inventive and biting German sense of humor. I remember far too few examples of what appealed to her comedic sense, but I have just remembered a joke that she loved to tell. It gives me great pleasure to publicize this joke on the internet, but please be forewarned: you're not going to like it.

Three turtles decided to go out to a tea-house for tea. They were worried that it might rain, but they decided to go anyway. When they got to the tea-house, they ordered tea and cookies. While waiting for their order, they looked outside, and it looked like it was going to rain hard. So they decided that the third turtle should go home and fetch their umbrellas.

The third turtle did not want to leave. He said, "If I go home to get our umbrellas, you'll eat my cookie."

"No, no," the others said. "We won't eat your cookie."

It took some arguing, but at last, the third turtle got off his chair and crept away.

The waiter brought the tea and cookies to the table. After he had set the food down, the two turtles ate their own cookies and drank their tea. Then they stared at the third turtle's cookie. But of course, they had promised not to eat it.

A long time passed. A very long time.

The first turtle said to the second, "It looks like he's not coming back. Let's eat his cookie."

When the first turtle said that, a little turtle voice piped up from floor next to the tea-house door, saying, "If you eat my cookie, I won't get your umbrellas."

Friday, July 23, 2010

The BP Oil company hopes they have finally stopped their oil well from spilling. I have a little advice for BP, that comes from my father. In about 1953, at work, his boss, Leo, was telling a long, convoluted joke. After awhile, Leo said, “So, to make a long story short –” To which my father replied,
“Too late.”

{By the way, the Shelby Lyman chess column has another error today. I'll report on it soon. I hope I don't need a whole 'nother blog just to critique one puzzle column.}

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Shelby Lyman's Chess Column: Errors (item #1):

My fine local paper, the Trenton Times, has a daily chess column. The column doesn't say so, but Times employees assure me that this is Shelby Lyman's daily chess puzzle. Have you found errors in any of these daily chess puzzles? If so, please comment. I wish this entertaining puzzle column was more accurate.

I count Shelby Lyman as a friend, way back from 1959, and I enjoyed his many chess forays on TV. This column is usually fun, but it is also frustrating for the errors that appear in it. The quality of the column appears to change every few years, suggesting the possibility that various people have been hired to "ghost-write" the puzzles. (I have not contacted Lyman about this blog piece. I would be writing him instead of writing to all of you, if I knew how to contact his column.)

Part of my frustration comes from never seeing a correction. The column, years ago, rarely posted the worst possible error: giving the solution to some other problem than the one shown (and moving non-existent pieces). Perhaps six times a year there are mistakes: solutions that do not work, or alternate and better solutions. I wish the column published corrections when there were errors! Many of the errors could be avoided by testing the problems with computer programs specifically designed to test problems; I do not know why they seem not to be used.

Today, I made a determined deffort to find the puzzle in today's Lyman puzzle on the internet. Instead, I found other people who are frustrated that they cannot contact Lyman to discuss errors. This web page illustrates a catch by one 'Jedzz': I remember the diagram he shows, and -- gee -- the column must have more mistakes than I thought, because I did not catch this one.

In order to share Lyman's mistakes with you, I needed a program that would put chess diagrams in my blog. I am using Chess Diagrams, by DrAmbar (A Chatterjee). (Thanks!) I hope, I hope, my positions will be correct. I do not wish to insert any more errors. Today's error, the proverbial straw for me, is a minor one:

The caption implies that this position arose in the game Tregubov-Vorobiov (2001). The hint is: White to Play. Win a rook. And the hint is correct. I expected the solution to show several lines, but it only shows this (I added the question marks):
1. Qf7ch! Qd7? 2. Rc1ch?? Kd8 3. Qf8ch gets a rook.

Now if black had played 1 ... K moves, then 2. Qf8ch would indeed win a rook. But after 1... Qd7, white wins everything: 2. Rxb7ch Rxb7 3. Rxb7ch Kxb7 4. Qxd7ch K moves 5. Qg7 and black's remaining rook is trapped.

I will share one more Lyman puzzle error with you, and then: let's look forward, not back. Here's another position, in which "White Forces Mate" (Warning: Don't try to solve it!)

The given solution is: 1. Bf7ch Kh7 2. Bg6ch Kh6 3. Rh8ch Kg5 4. Rxh5 mate. And it would be mate, too, if black couldn't just play 4 ... Kg4. (It's possible that the position is incorrect; add a white pawn at h3 and it all works.)

Open Message to Shelby Lyman: Please check your problems by computer, and please print corrections! Thanks.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Municipal Security:

I recently spent three hours at municipal court. (I had to plead guilty to a moving violation.) Apparently the way these courts work is that they summon thirty or so people to arrive at 5 pm, and then we all sit around while cases are called. Some people were probably there for five hours.

The evening started like this: a few of us arrived early and sat down in the court room. Then a policeman came in and asked us all to go back into the hall and go through a metal detector. (I could probably have left anything in the courtroom under a chair while I did that.)

I wear my phone and PDA in a pouch on my belt. I removed that pouch and my keys, etc., before going through the detector. There was only one decent place to set my stuff down: on a table just beyond the detector, so I reached around and put my pouch and stuff there.

I walked though the detector without even a chirp, picked up my gear from the table and went back to the court room. I could have secreted anything in my pouch, even something solid weighing two pounds. The policeman did not even glance at it.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

George Steinbrenner: Let's hear it for the New York Times

After George Steinbrenner died, CBS Radio (880 in the New York Area) started memorializing him in their regular 30 minute news blocks. I hated these radio snippets about Steinbrenner. I was driviing to NYC, and news radio is generally good listening. But I wanted to turn the radio off, every time their mini-pieces about G.S. came on.

I wasn't sure why I hated these radio snippets until my New York Times came the next morning, laden with columns about Steinbrenner. You need print to do justice to a subject like this. I gobbled up every word. GS is only one of thousands of topics that deserve newspapers and magazines to hash them out.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Parking Illegally:

I'm trying to work up the nerve to park illegally in a parking garage. Now that I've imagined how to do it, I'm really curious what would happen. Let me explain.

We have a disability permit that we hang, when appropriate, in our car. In New Jersey, this permit takes into account all of the inconveniences that normal parking spaces visit upon the disabled, by allowing us to park illegally. I believe we can even ignore parking meters (but I have been careful never to do this).

Now, what does it mean to park illegally in a parking garage? I would never park there in a non-space. Travel lanes in a parking garage are dangerously narrow and full of blind turns. It would be foolish and dangerous to "make up" a parking space in a garage.

So here's my idea: I enter the garage, taking the automatic parking ticket as usual. When I leave the garage, I will drive up to the attendant with the disability permit clearly displayed. I will hand him the automatic ticket, and I will explain that I am not going to pay anything, because I was parked illegally.

I have a funny feeling that it's just not going to fly.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Is THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN a Paternalistic Twit?

In this week’s New in Review section, Thomas Friedman takes up the question of Octavia Nasr’s firing for expressing condolences over (I’m quoting him now:) Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, one of the most prominent Lebanese Shiite spiritual leaders who was involved in the founding of the Hezbollah militia.
Friedman is largely on Nasr’s side, for reasons that, as you can guess, resonate with me. The column is called Can We Talk? He raises freedom-of-speech issues for reporters. He argues in favor of getting news from people with first-hand contextual knowledge. He sounds quite thoughtful. Nonetheless, he feels that Nasr should have been suspended for a month, and one basis for his reasoning appears near the beginning of his column:

Reporters covering a beat should not be issuing condolences for any of the actors they cover. It undermines their credibility.

My mouth gaped so wide that my lower jaw banged my breakfast plate when I read that line. Sounds reasonable, doesn't it? Well, how many reporters does the New York Times need to fire - or suspend - for expressing their condolences for George Steinbrenner, all this week, and even in the same section with Friedman's column?

I'm not taking a position on Octavia Nasr. But as for Friedman: What an idiotic, vapid idea.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

A GUI Tip for Website Developers:

Here’s another public service for you all, especially for those of you who develop websites.

As you know, it is common for a webpage to have links to multiple pages; groups of pictures perhaps, or the next group of hits, whatever. Typically, a web page allows you to navigate to these subpages with references like this:

|1|2|3|4| next |

Now it’s important to note that the word ‘next’ is entirely superfluous; it does not enable you to do anything you can’t do by clicking a page number. My goal here is to tell you how to lay out a web page so that the word ‘next’ (and maybe even ‘prev’) becomes utterly useful. There are two ways to do this; the best approach is to adopt both:

1: Put the numbers so close together that it’s really hard to select one and click it.

2: Display the “current” page number in a barely different way from the other numbers. That way, the user will despair of knowing which page he’s on, and he (or she) will be eager to click ‘next’.

I’m so glad I could help.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

I’m growing tomatoes again this year.

Last year, I grew mostly cherry tomatoes. I also planted two tomatillo plants, and one of them bore many fruits. A few years ago, I tried to grow big tomatoes, and the results were disappointing. They took a long time to get ripe, and most of them were attacked by insects, birds or rodents.

This year, there were no tomatillos where I shop. But there were “Early Girls,” relatively small fullsize tomatoes that ripen by mid-July. So I tried four of them them, along with five cherry tomato plants. We are already getting delicious cherry tomatoes, and we have many green Early Girls that are threatening to turn red. I don’t expect to get a thousand cherry tomatoes this year, but it looks like there will be lots of them. They are so, so much better than store tomatoes.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Tiger to OJ:

A very astute relative of mine pointed out that Tiger Woods has the potential to become remarkably more like OJ Simpson, even though, of course, he has never come close to doing violence to anybody, and I’m sure he never will. If this seems like a stretch to you, consider these two simple steps:

Tiger can announce that he has started an investigation to find the guy who actually had sex with all those women.

Tiger can write a book called “If I Did Them.”

Thanks for the tip, Alfred.

Monday, July 12, 2010

CVS Seems to Exaggerate: Senior Citizens 10% off all prescription medicines.

When I enter my local CVS, I see a sign in large type that seems to have no ifs, ands or buts. It says approximately this:

Senior Citizens 10% off all prescription medicines.

I inquired about this great-sounding deal, and was disappointed to find out what it really meant.

The sign does not mention a restriction: You get this discount if you have no insurance. Please note: if you have insurance, but that insurance does not cover a specific prescription, you do not get the discount. You have to have no insurance at all. And Medicare counts as insurance.

Now there are senior citizens who have no insurance and not even Medicare, but I suspect they represent a very small part of the Senior Citizen population, especially in central New Jersey.

Ah. But the CVS deal is better than that, as a pharmacist explained to me. For them, a Senior Citizen is 62 and older. So for about three years, more SC’s can take advantage of this deal, although, duh, a lot of them will have insurance and be ineligible.

CVS, how about rewording your sign?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Drivers who can’t read English:

Should people be allowed to take the written driver’s test in foreign languages? You've probably read news reports about cities, or states, battling over this issue. There’s always the “You’re in America, learn American” argument. And then there are slow-but-sure-melting-pot arguments. I’m generally in favor of the latter, but I worry what will happen when these non-English readers have to deal with our signs. The most important signs are iconic, and will make sene to anyone who has taken the time to memorize what the icons mean. But there are plenty of signs that are just words. Some of them are advisory and not very important. Others...well, maybe it's important for every driver to be able to read them.

For a long time, I've wanted to blog about such signs. I would drive past a particularly juicy one, try to make a mental note, and then forget it. But Donald Knuth has come to my rescue.

Knuth is an important person in the development of rigorous Computer Science, and he wrote a wonderful program -- that many people rely on -- for setting all manner of text, that he relies on to publish his own books. Fortunately, he has other interests. One summer, he and his wife Jill collected signs in Ohio and made a Photo Essay of them. I have picked and chosen my way through them, to give you a selection of signs that, well, woe betide the driver who sails past them oblivious. And believe me, this is just a sampling:

Fire Station watch for trucks

Watch for Emergency Vehicles

Hidden Driveway

Elk Xing (American sign writers seem to think that 'Xing' is an internationally recognized symbol

Watch for Snakes and Scorpions

Slippery Wet Pavement ahead

Bridges May be Icy

Caution Channel flooded during storm

Bridge Blocks View

Blasting Zone 1000 feet

Abrupt Edge Right

Prepare to Stop when Flashing

Be Prepared to Stop

Bridge Closed

Whew! Beware of dragons, too.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Your Friendly Local CVS:

I did not drop a prescription off at the CVS last night, because it was too hot for a long walk, and there were no nearby parking spaces. But this morning, the lot next to CVS was empty. I dropped a nickel in the meter, sure that three minutes would be enough to get in and get out.

There was a line at the drop-off counter. The elderly lady in front had a lot of questions. Finally she left, and the remaining woman asked, “Can I get it right now?”

“I’ll see,” the pharmacist said, and my heart sank. Parking tickets are not cheap here.

Presently the woman handed over her insurance card. After a while, the pharmacist said, “This card is no longer valid.”

“How about this one,” the woman said, handing over another insurance card.

At this point I felt desperate. I waved my prescription and said, “If I go back to my car and put more money in the meter and come back, will I have to stand in line?”
“Give me your prescription,” the pharmacist said. Oh, how nice.

I did not get a ticket.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Driving off a cliff (not quite):

There’s a horrible Trompe L’Oeil that can really disturb you while driving. I’ve suffered this effect, and I suspect most of you have as well. One of my friends in college told me his own experience, which was truly terrifying. He said, “I was moving slowly into a parking space in a small lot at the edge of a cliff. There wasn’t much fence, so I was being really careful. When I was sure I was in the space and not too close, I pressed down firmly on the brake. My car kept moving! I hit the brake as hard as I could and still I didn’t stop. I thought I was going to go over, my heart was in my mouth! And then I realized. The car next to me was backing out. I wasn’t moving, but because I assumed the cars next to me were stationary, I thought I was still in motion.”

Well, that’s old news to all of you, isn’t it? But here’s a new wrinkle. If you’re in a nasty mood, you can do this to someone else! When you are ready to back out of a parking space, and a car starts to drive into the space next to you, wait until that driver begins to stop his car, and then put your car in motion. If he (or she) is looking your way, you can drive off, chewing over the knowledge that you’ve put the scare into that driver.

Let me put my suggestion another way. This morning, I was about to pull my car out of a parking space in a foresty, tree-overhung lot, when an elderly man started to ease his car into the space next to me, looking my way. I carefully waited until he had completely stopped before putting my car in motion, because I was not in a nasty mood. But I will be, some other time, so look out.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

I know it when I see it:

Justice Potter Stewart's excellent defintion of pornography is being put to yet another imaginative test, by a medical imaging company named Eizo. They have released a calendar of X-ray pictures of a model. The Dvorak blog is linking to the Eizo calendar, and they ask the interesting question: if you can’t see the naughty bits, but can see behind the naughty bits, is it naughty?

I think this sort of decision is definitely in the eye of the beholder. This particular beholder (me, that is) found exactly one of the pictures to be over the top. The rest are genuinely amusing, and the quality of beauty they convey is just slightly less than what those pitiful size-1 models can do for me.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Copyright, and paying for music:

The composer, Jason Robert Brown, published a long exchange he had with a teenager who just couldn’t see what was wrong or illegal with downloading his sheet music and not paying for it. It’s a fascinating exchange, and I recommend reading the whole thing.
You might even enjoy the comments. Brown’s experience began with his attempt to get people at one website to stop offering his sheet music for illegal downloads. Brown’s position is simple: This music is his livelihood, and he expects people to pay for it. I think there’s a lot to say for the argument that an artist can benefit from the free gifting of some of his or her art, and in this matter, I practice what I preach. But the decision to give some art away belongs to its owner, not to anyone who happens to want it.

Brown’s exchange with this teen illustrates what seems to be the status quo: that an awful lot of people feel they are doing the good thing, or the right thing, when they take free copies of someone else’s work. Brown mentions his feeling that the recording industry is dying because of all these free ripoffs. I think it’s probably fairer to say that the record industry is dying because it is trying to resist a tidal wave, instead of trying to make it work for them, or, as Brown is doing, trying to better shape that wave.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

A Wonderful Podcast, CD-length (TekDiff):

I really enjoy the Tekdiff (Technical Difficulties) audio-only podcast. Its creator, Cayenne Chris Conroy, produces very funny skits and engrossing extended F&SF stories. His humor can veer off into belly-laugh surprises, he does (almost) all of a great panoply of voices by himself, and he’s a master at handling sound effects. (And by the way, he’s not always safe for work.)

Now, for a side-project, he has produced a CD-length podcast of a remarkable story that winds and twists through fascinating, fantastical scene after scene. I listened to the original version of this story, which appeared in bits and pieces in Cayenne’s regular Tekdiff podcasts. Now he has re-recorded it and published it all together. The podcast begins with a mordant apology for failing to attend to his current podcast schedule, and then launches into the spell-binding epic, a story about a childless father’s quest to find his teenage son before it’s much too late. It’s called The Whoever Wishes Show, and you can download it here. If you listen to humorous podcasts, or if you like, oh, say, Neil Gaiman, I strongly suggest that you do so.

Friday, July 02, 2010

A free plot idea!

As a budding novelist, I’m always looking for great plot ideas, so just imagine how selfless I am, tossing out, entirely FREE, a great idea for a TV Sitcom. The background is a story about Google, reported in the New York Times. Google is going to give some extra $$ to some of its homosexual employees who live with a domestic partners, to compensate them for a benefits tax they must pay, that we hetero couples do not have to pay. Google is not alone in this. According to the story, it's a cutting edge thing, but other companies do it as well. Now here's my fantastic sitcom idea:

Bill and Jane are happily married. So are Jim and Gina. Each couple owns half of a house that they all share. They all work at companies that offer this extra money to gay couples. In order to get it, Jane and Gina "live together" downstairs, and the men “live together” upstairs, on top of the ladies (a thousand laughs right there). You can imagine all the amusing frustrations that arise as the couples try to keep their true love secret, and as they struggle and flail to schedule enough sex time with their true spouses. The show could be called "Four's Company," or "Bill and Jim plus two." It'll get a million laughs.