Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Internet Anonymity and Dead Pedestrians:

In a brief and succint Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, Julie Zhuo describes the horrors that trolls commit on the internet, and implores us to get rid of them all by stripping away their anonymity. But anonymity on the Internet is also the refuge of whistle blowers and rebels who would overthrow tyranny. I think there’s an uneasy tolerance for anonymous Internet activity, because we know that these same forums can be utilized to our great benefit.

Before we throw this baby out, we should look at an illustrative case, where we have also decided to accept terrible wrongs that come along with great benefits. How many tens of thousands of people die each year, pedestrians included, just because we refuse to take away everybody’s automobiles?

By the way: Hey, trolls? get a life.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Exxon Office System Shrinks, Part IV:

{I began this story here, about the two biggest divisions of Exxon Office Systems.}

Well, you’ve now heard the high point of my story. This final part is about some of the fallout. My Princeton site had generally dealt with Vydec regarding our hardware needs. Now we had to deal with Lionville (that’s where Qwix was). The contents of the Vydec building had been packed into 51 trucking containers of prototypes and paper, and it took Lionville a year to unpack and catalog the stuff. They weren’t delaying or anything, they just had to fit the unpacking into their already overbusy jobs. For a long time, Lionville people could not find any hardware plans we needed. When at last they could, we had to jump through hoops to follow the operations document that spelled out what every Qwix employee could or could not do. That was really hard, because this operations document was not written down. I learned of it in bits and pieces, as Qwix employees explained why they did not get back to me to say why they had broken a commitment without telling me. I was reminded again and again of Big Julie, a character from Damon Runyan’s New York demi-world, who plays Craps with his own personal, worn-out dice. The spots have been worn off these dice, but Big Julie remembers where they formerly were.

And there was Gary, a Vydec employee who committed to making the transfer to Philly, even though his friends were certain he would never move south. Gary was deep in many projects. Somehow he kept his office in the old Vydec building until a new tenant moved in, and then he kept a temporary Jersey office. Eighteen months after Vydec was closed, his new bosses told him he had to relocate, so he resigned.

With Vydec closed, Lionville was no closer to headquarters in Stamford, and headquarters became more powerful, with marketing consolidating there. Qwix managers still had to make those ten hour round trips to Stamford for meetings.

The Qwix building developed its own defense against the rest of the company, a defense I still find utterly fascinating. From time to time, we needed copies of hardware documentation. Any piece of paper that left the Lionville building was stamped “Preliminary.” This might be a document describing the current Qwix typewriter that had sold hundreds of units; the document might bear the approval signatures of every vice president and director; it was still “preliminary” if it left the building. No commitments, no promises!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Clarence Childs and Slow Motion replay:

I'm pretty sure this football play happened in 1964. Clarence Childs was a new running back for the Giants. He was occasionally explosive, and often unpredictable. But that’s not important now. The TV networks had a new tool to ramp up the excitement of football games: Slow Motion Replay. And I’m going to tell you about one of the first times it was used in a New York Giants game.

Childs took the handoff and went straight forward, gaining five yards up the middle. The announcer, to whom this replay technology was a new thing, explained that we were going to take a closer look at the play, to see how Childs gained those five yards. The slow-mo commenced, and here’s what we saw:

The quarterback handed the ball to Childs, but he failed to hold it. It slipped down, but Child’s knee came up and hit the ball back up through his hands. He couldn’t hold it, and the ball continued up until it hit his chin. It bounced back through his hands and hit a driving knee again. This time, Childs got a firm grip on the ball, just in time to be tackled. All through this pantomime, Childs kept his head down, eye on the ball, obviously thinking of nothing but how to grab it.

After the playback, the announcer said, “Sometimes, it’s not such a good idea to take a close look at these plays.”

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Exxon Office System Shrinks, Part III:

{I began this story here, about the two biggest divisions of Exxon Office Systems.}

Eventually, Exxon management told EOS that it must consolidate. EOS set up a committee to decide how to do this, and it took them only a month or two to make their decision. The decision was widely leaked, and almost everyone was excited by it: the Qwix building would be closed.

Vydec people were jubilant. This was the end of their battle for dominance over the Qwix people. Whoever was willing to take the transfer from there to Vydec was going to eat a lot of dirt, assigned to jobs as low in the ladder as their expertise would allow. Qwix people were equally excited. Mostly, they planned to resign and take the handsome package that would be offered to resignees. Many Qwix people expected - at last - to be able to buy a house.

The EOS committee placed their case before an Exxon board. The meeting was brief. They explained the big advantages of closing Qwix. An Exxon manager asked, Do you own these buildings, or rent them? EOS explained that they rented where Vydec worked. They owned the Qwix building. The next question was, Do you have a buyer for the Qwix building? No, but EOS was sure they could sell it soon.

The Exxon board made their decision: Since EOS owned the Qwix building, it would close Vydec. Nothing else mattered.

Employees were stunned. Qwix people saw their ‘Get out of Jail’ card fluttering away. Vydex people saw their empire crumbling, and few of them wanted to move to farmland south of Philadelphia. The Vydec people joked about the bonus package they would get for relocating: first of all, everybody gets a cow. Second, it’s understood that some people want to relocate, but their spouses do not; the spouses who are willing to move will be placed in a pool, and redistributed among the employees who relocate. Bitter, bitter, bitter.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Mounds and Mounds of paper, in the paperless office:

Below, in part I of my story about Exxon Office System Shrinks, jgfellow commented on his own efforts to reduce paper use. He reminded me of one of the great ironies we faced at Exxon, in our small startup: Our efforts to produce a paperless office produced mounds and mounds of computer listings and drafts of documents. I developed a healthy respect for paper - a truly wonderful storage medium - in 1978 and following years.

I will soon post part III of the 'shrinks' story.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Exxon Office System Shrinks, Part II:

{I began this story yesterday, about the two biggest divisions of Exxon Office Systems.}

Vydec and Qwix were singularly ill-equipped to run, or be a major part of, a 1980’s office systems company. Vydec’s great success was a hard-wired word processor machine. Costing $14,000, it had an incredibly clear screen. It stored documents on floppies, and had a decent word processing program. And again, although it’s hard to believe this: it was entirely hard-wired. There was no CPU in the base product, and no software in it. People loved to use a Vydec, if they could afford it; until they could buy a PC for $3,000 and a word processor for $300 to replace it.

Vydec’s managers saw that the future of word processing belonged to computer software. Since they were all hardware people, they did a terrible job of building a software division to stay on top of their market.

Qwix made intelligent typewriters that cost (I think) around $3,000. The typewriters had a 40 character display, and incredible firmware within. The Qwix division made analyses of productivity and determined that a secretary who switched from a manual typewriter to a Qwix lost productivity for – on average – eight months, while she or he got the hang of all the keyboard commands necessary to operate it efficiently. After that, productivity loss continued in an entirely different way: managers learned how cheap it was to request minor document changes, since the typed pages were stored in the Qwix. Secretaries spent more and more time revising documents instead of catching up on their workload. Many Qwix’s were sold, and I pity the companies who relied on them.

EOS sold its products for more than the leveraged manufacturing cost. As they liked to say, they lost money on units, but made it up in quantity. Eventually, business was so bad that the sales people were paid a living salary. You want sales people to live off commissions, as an incentive to make sales. EOS’s sales people couldn’t make that living. Instead, some of them were incentivised to – get this – draw a salary from EOS while surreptitiously making commissions for selling some other company’s products.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Exxon Office System Shrinks, Part I:

I have not yet blogged about one of the most fascinating chapters in the miserable history of Exxon Office Systems. This is a long story, so I will break it into short chapters. It’s the story of how, as some of the employees put it, everyone at Vydec was entitled to a cow.

In the1970’s, Exxon asked itself what it would do when the world ran out of oil. They found one business where profits were higher than oil profits – computers – and decided to get their toes wet. Eventually, Exxon started 21 ventures in many aspects of computer operations. Most of these were miserable failures. That’s a compliment, because it suggests that Exxon had the nerve to take forward-looking risks. Around 1980, Exxon consolidated its best ventures into Exxon Office Systems. EOS’s evident goal was to be so successful at selling office computer equipment that it would overwhelm Xerox. (I’m not making that up. EOS fixed its goal on Xerox while ignoring the PC word-processing tidal wave that would utterly destroy their business models.)

Two of the consolidated ventures were big, with over a thousand employees: Vydec, and Qwix. I had a great front row seat to follow, and be buffeted by, the machinations of EOS, as an employee of one of the three little ventures that were included in the new company. (I was in Princeton-based XONEX, a venture to develop the paperless office, using optical disks as storage in 1980. Ha.)

Vydec and Qwix vied for domination of EOS, and Vydec won. They controlled marketing and planning. Both they and Qwix could manufacture hardware. The Vydec site also developed software, although the software was never very good.

The physical layout of EOS was weird, because hardly anyone was required to move when it was created. Headquarters were in Stamford, right across the road from Xerox’s biggest Eastern office. Vydec was in North Jersey. Qwix worked out of a gigantic building south of Philly, in a rather bucolic area. The smaller pieces of EOS were in San Francisco, Princeton, Miami and Connecticut. When major managers were summoned to meetings at headquarters, the Qwix people might spend ten hours in a car, round-trip.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Shelby Lyman's chess column, for the last time:

There have been several recent mistakes in Shelby Lyman's chess columns. Pointing them out is like beating a dead barrel, or shooting fish in a stallion. After this blog entry, I give up.

I'm going to continue to read his column. The puzzles are fun and often quite challenging for me. I just wish he would proofread more carefully, and issue corrections for mistakes.

Our Sunday paper carries his whole column-cum-problem, and on November 7, 2010, the problem diagram had this caption: WHITE WINS THE KNIGHT. the solution was 1.Nb6 (although no white piece can move to B6) followed by 2. Ba5 (although no white piece can move to A5). Obviously, the diagram and the text did not match. But there's more! The Sunday column always features an entire game, plus a diagram that corresponds to a position near the end of the game (clever, clever, the text never says WHICH move the diagram corresponds to). That day's game was Onischuk versus Volotkin, but the diagram was labeled Aronian versus Zong-Yuan, and the position in the diagram could not occur in the given game. (The Zong-Yuan game appeared the following Sunday, without apology of course.) The producer of this chess column did not do a sanity check on the way out. But there's more!

In one puzzle this week, the challenge was for black to win material. The proposed solution was a two queen-move combination that wins a rook. But black is in check in the diagram. Black has only two legal moves: a king move, and a move to throw away the queen. (A black pawn was evidently omitted from this problem by mistake.) The producer of this chess column did not do a sanity check on it. But there's more!

The November 4 column had an interesting mistake. Please consult the diagram above. White is to play, and the column's solution is 1. Ra2. This move pins black's bishop against the rook, allowing white to bring his bishop over and doubly attack black's bishop, winning it. Black cannot break the pin. Or can he? Lyman does not mention: 1. ... g5!
Now, white's bishop no longer prevents ...Rd2. Black threatens to play 2. ...Rd2 and 3. ...Bc3, breaking the pin, because black's bishop will protect black's rook. White has an answer, but it's not nearly as good as winning a bishop: 1. Ra2, g5. 2. h4, Rd2. 3. hxg5, Bc3. Alternatively, white can try to bring his king over to attack black's rook, but that allows black to check with the rook (on the sixth or eighth row), and then move the black bishop out of trouble. This problem just doesn't work, I think. Maybe white should grab the pawn with 1. Rxb7.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

There's a Scam here Somewhere:

Honestly, I'm not devious enough to work this one out. But there's a scam somewhere in the observation I'm about to make. (A highly illegal scam, I'm sure; please don't try it on your own.)

I have been using dollar coins to buy stuff. Almost every cashier looks at these coins and asks, "What is this?"

"Dollar coins," I reply.

"Oh," they say, and they duly ring them up.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

My Bucket Listen List:

I've been wrestling with an enjoyable though mordant idea: What classical music would I like to listen to during a final illness? My provacative(??) choices are in yet another place, WPRB's Radio Station Blog for its listeners.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Ansel Adams or Not? Let's look at the art:

Reythan Harmanci wrote a fascinating piece in the November 10, 2010 New York Times (Art Section) about the ongoing controversy over a set of photographs that a Rick Norsigian is trying to sell or license. These photos have been valued (overvalued, I'd say) at $200 million if they are the work of Ansel Adams. Adams' authorship of these photos is in dispute. (I won’t get into the details of the dispute here.) What's interesting for the moment, is that the article lets us compare an actual Adams photo to two similar ones, by another photographer, Arthur C. Pillsbury, and by either Adams or a certain Earl Brooks, a photo from the disputed Norsigian collection. (The photos are easier to compare in the actual paper edition of the Times. If you're following this story on an iPad, too bad for you.)

Examine these three photos and look at the art. The Pillsbury and Norsigian photos concentrate on the brooding image of a windswept tree. The tree itself is darkened to grab all our attention. It is almost devoid of detail. Land is visible in these two pictures. The slope of the land adds nothing to the drama of the tree. If anything, the land detail in these two photos detracts from the more simplistic tree. (If you’re sympathetic, you might say ‘contrast’ rather than ‘detract’.

In the Pillsbury picture, lots of clouds are visible. They do not echo or frame the shape of the tree. A curving line sweeps across the picture, created by the cloud-bottoms, adding disharmony.

The Norsigian photo is also full of clouds. The white clouds add a happiness that contradicts the tree. Faint black shapes at the top of the picture include figures so regular, they seem out of place. (These shapes are much easier to see online, not in the paper.)

Ansel Adams was an artist who created extraordinary art from landscape. A discerning eye and genius in the darkroom begins where the other two photos leave off, and soars into the realm of great art. There are almost no clouds in the Ansel photo. Probably there were clouds, but he blocked them out because they looked wrong. The remaining cloud highlights a sort of ‘offset’, a branch leaning the wrong way that cleverly sets off the tree, producing a cantilevered effect that is much more interesting than a ‘lean.’ Ansel’s tree is not darkened to the point where it carries the total impact of the photo. It has detail, detail echoed by groundshapes and shadows. A great artist, in my opinion, made only one of these photographs.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

The Illusion of Control:

The Dvorak Blog has a nice piece (by Uncle Dave) on the technology that pacifies us by giving us the Illusion of control. The piece mentions 'close' buttons in elevators that usually do nothing; 'Walk buttons' for pedestrians at traffic lights (in Manhattan, apparently it is known that many of them intentionally do nothing); and thermostats placed in offices in commercial buildings that are connected to nothing. (The illusive thermostats prevent people from calling the heating company to complain about the temperature.)

Someone commenting on this piece mentioned the buttons in electronic voting booths, suggesting that no matter which buttons you press, nothing seems to happen.

I would like to take issue with the elevator 'close' button. It is true that if you press 'close' the moment the elevator doors open, your pressage usually has no effect. And I know we are all tempted to do that when the doors open at some floor where no one seems to be waiting. But try this: wait a little more than a second after the doors open, and then press close. Often, the doors will respond at once.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Kinect (1):

I suspect I will post about the new Microsoft Kinect several times, even though I doubt I will ever own one. For starters, here's a term for those of you who will feel that you're going to heaven and beyond with your new Kinect:


And here's what many of you (often the same people, a few weeks later) will suffer from, when your Kinect gives you all manner of aches, pains, pulled muscles and collaterally damaged furniture:


Thursday, November 04, 2010

Making Progress with my SNEEZING:

All my life, I've been prone to violent sneezes. Most of them occur when I go out in the sun. From what I've read, my nose nerves and eye nerves are too close together, so that bright light striking my face makes me sneeze.

About ten years ago, I decided that I needed a serious strategy to deal with these sneezes. I was afraid I would injure something: pull a muscle or even crack a rib. I'm talking about strong sneezes. My solution at that time was to learn to relax my body when I felt a sneeze coming on. And that worked for me until recently.

I'm older now, and last summer I decided I simply had to stop sneezing. Relaxing isn't enough anymore, the strongest sneezes scare me. But how to stop?

I typically feel a sneeze coming a second or two before it happens. And I seem to be at a point of no return. And to make matters worse, I'm, well, kind of addicted to these sneezes. Avoiding them was going to be a life-changing matter.

I started by trying to remember, every time I went out into the sun, that a sneeze might be coming. (When my daughter was very young, she used to remind me, hoping that I could head the sneeze off.) It was hell trying to remember, and sometimes the sneeze snuck up many minutes later, when I was unguarded.

Meanwhile, I was struggling with the big question: once I feel a sneeze coming on, how do I stop it? Occasionally I got a chance to experiment, and I found a way. If I noticed the signs of a sneeze at the earliest possible moment, I could stop it by – I'm not making this up – scrunching my eyes tight shut, pinching my nose and wiggling it. Those strange motions, all related to my understanding that my nose and eye nerves are 'crossed', did the trick.

Week after hopeless week went by while I rarely noticed the signs in time. But one day, I caught two sneezes and stopped them. Wanting to do better had begun to create positive results. By now, I notice almost all my sneezes in time to stop them, and I rarely sneeze. I hope my sinews and ribs are, at last, safe.

Miserable Midterm:

I think Carl Sandburg had something to say about the dismal politicking that led to this miserable election:
When have people been half as rotten as
what the
panderers to the people dangle before the

Monday, November 01, 2010

None at All:

In 1961 I played first bassoon in a pretty good amateur orchestra in Manhattan. The first clarinettist was a much older guy. I don't remember his name, but I shall do my best to make him memorable to you.

The first clarinettist and first bassoonist usually sit side by side. Some clarinettists, mostly beginners, have an unpleasant edge in their clarinet sound that drives me crazy. It's obvious that this sound does not bother everyone. This clarinettist had that sound in his instrument, and although I liked him, his tone was often difficult to bear.

I talked to my father about my friends in this orchestra. (Another friend was the violist who was horrified when I guessed that the name of his girlfriend was Beverly Milkman.) My father recognized the clarinettist's name. “We went to college together. He was a Senior when I was a Freshman.”

Dad went on to tell the story of how they met. He had been in a Music Appreciation course, and on one occasion, the first chairs of the wind section, a flutist, an oboist, this clarinettist and a bassoonist, had come to demonstrate their instruments. Each one, in turn, played some famous, dramatic solo from the classical music literature. When it was the clarinettist's turn, he played a lewd song known to all in the class, not really Safe for Work, and everyone burst out laughing.