Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Sequel...

As the year comes to an end, movie makers everywhere are deciding how to capitalize on past successes by favoring us with even more sequels. Unfortunately, some of the greatest movies of all time seem to be immune to sequels. But I’ve given them some thought, and here are my dynamite picks for next year.
  1. Shawshank redemption, II: Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, unable to bear their great degree of freedom, plot to return to the only prison they could ever call home.
  2. The passion of the christ, II: This time, Jim Caviezel is beaten with much more modern S&M equipment.
  3. Twelve days of christmas: On the 13th day of ... (Note to you sticklers. I know you think this sequel should start on the 7th day, but that’s been done.)
  4. Broadway melody of 1938, II: A group of modern music stars go back in a time machine to wow a late 1930’s audience with their Hip Hop and Rap. Due to the lack of modern sound equipment, and the stars' inability to project their untrained singing voices, the show flops.
  5. Xanadu, II: Oops, sorry.
  6. It’s a wonderful life, II: George Bailey’s life isn’t working out very well. He asks Clarence for a few minor changes.
  7. Invasion of the body snatchers: After that mysterious menace takes over the minds of every single person on earth, an even greater menace comes down from the sky to wreak even greater havoc.
  8. Excursion to the moon (1908), II: A party returns to the moon to repair the man’s eye, take a great step for mankind, and play golf. (Perhaps this one has been made already.)
  9. The mouse that roared, II: Highly incestual inbreeding in the Duchy of Fenwick has produced a generation of terrifying monsters. J-Lo, a doctor with a degree in movie-monster-dealing, tries to stop them from conquering the United States. Again.
  10. The godfather, part II, II: Anything in this franchise should make millions. If it does, look out for The godfather, part II, II, II.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Another Universal Calender. Yawn...

Dick Henry writes here about a new proposal for a universal calendar. His idea avoids interpolating a special year-day, an issue that has plagued previous proposals. Religious groups that worship a holy day every seven days hate the interpolated day, because it implies shifting the lord’s day from Sunday one year to Saturday the next, and so on.

The Hanke-Henry Permanent Calendar interpolates a whole week, every five or six years. It does not monkey with the lord’s day calculations, and it has the fascinating side effect that any memorable day (such as your birthday, or July 4th) will henceforth always fall on the same day of the week. Henry proposes that we commence using this calendar in 2012.

A better idea would be plan now, to start using the calendar in 2062. If a great majority of people like it, that is. Here’s the problem:

On the web page I linked to, there’s a FAQ, including this item:

14.) Won't this whole exercise be costly?

It will be about as costly as the Y2K problem was.

Henry betrays a woefully poor understanding of computers in this answer. The challenge of Y2K was to find every computer program that would calculate the date wrong in the year 2000. If that calculation could cause any real problem, then the program had to be changed. A great deal of development effort went into making sure there would be few problems, and the most evident result was that computer departments did very little real development that year. The Y2K problem siphoned off a lot of potential creativity. Companies had less money to buy new hardware and software, because their staffs were working on Y2K. The Y2K cost was great enough to produce a poor year for the computer industry.

Shifting to the Hanke-Henry calendar requires a different kind of effort. Every single program that needs to calculate dates will be wrong. Every single one will have to be modified or replaced. Every program that keeps track of the “week of the year” will have to be changed to handle the 53rd week that will appear in some years.

There is only one easy way to introduce a new calendar, and that is to assume it will go into effect after 99.99% of non-complying programs are no longer in use. We can issue straightforward software libraries that make all necessary date calculations for both the current way and some new way, and use these libraries in all newly developed programs, from 2012 on. We can “throw the switch” to the new calendar when almost all old programs are dead. Fifty years of waiting should do it.

(The easy way to reform the calendar, if it was ever going to be formed again, was before we had computers.)

NOTE 1:Today, changing the way the date is calculated implies changing and replacing a lot of hardware, as well as software. Much hardware has programs burned into it, and some of that software does date calculations.

NOTE 2:Many people claim that the Y2K effort was overblown and mostly unnecessary, because there were, in fact, few problems when we entered the year 2000. My own feeling is that it was the great effort to avoid Y2K problems that produced such smooth sailing. But regardless of how you felt about the Y2K effort, this calendar proposal requires more effort, not less; because we KNOW that no computer program in production today knows how to handle the proposed calendar.

NOTE 3:The Y2K problem did not require republishing any books. A great number of books have information that depends on calendar dates, and many of these will become misleading and incorrect.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Fraudulent Energy Rating:

When our old, old dishwasher died, we bought a new unit that had a very high energy rating. The new unit works almost as well as the old one, and I think I know why. The difference has to do with our infernal preoccupation with very high energy ratings, and what manufacturers do to achieve them.

I remember checking out advice at Consumer Reports about using dishwashers. They advise you that there's no point rinsing and scraping dishes before putting them in the dishwasher. The dishwasher can clean your dishes! What you're doing when you pre-clean is simply wasting water, a precious natural resource.

Our dishwasher came with two items of instruction that surprised me: They told us to pre-clean and rinse the dishes before putting them in the dishwasher, and they advised getting the tap water hot before starting the dishwasher.

I think that this advice enables the manufacturer to make a dishwasher that uses less energy. Making us spend energy and natural resources to make life easier for the dishwasher doesn’t count in the energy rating, and that's unfair.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Touchfire. Not a laptop killer for the iPad:

Touchfire is getting a lot of great publicity right now. I’m sure there’s a great market for it, and I might even try it on my iPad. But almost everyone who writes about it has obviously not tried to use it for serious writing. Critics are gushing about something it just doesn’t do.

The Touchfire is a see-through plastic overlay for the iPad with detents for your fingers. It covers the exact area that the standard keyboard appears in, and apparently it allows you to touchtype much more naturally, without preventing you from doing some normal swiping. And it can fold up out of the way when not in use.

Here’s some typical praise for the Touchfire.

I’ve done some writing on the iPad’s soft keyboard, and with the extra line of punctuation keys that iA Writer adds, it’s bearable. The problem with the iPad’s soft keyboard is that using it requires an inordinate amount of shifting. There are 35 keys on the standard iPad keyboard, compared to the over 100 keys on the real keyboard I’m using right now.

Touchfire will make simple typing easier and faster. But for those of us who want to tell you how fast the quick brown fox is running, and what sort of difficulties it’s getting into, Touchfire is not going take the iPad to some new level.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Fairy Calm:

Accidental typos can produce memorable jokes and even new expressions. I've been told that the old, printed TV guide, which published for many, many years, forbid the use of the word "skit" in descriptions of programs. They never, never, wanted to see the feared typo.

In Emails, I check my name very carefully, because I know I occasionally mistype "Toy" rather than "Toby". I do not want to refer to myself as:  'Toy'!

These musings are a run-up to a wonderful new expression I saw on the web today. I've changed the quote below to make my source harder to find, but I just loved the misspelling of 'fairly':
The protest was fairy calm until people started to target passing cars ...

We could use some of that fairy calm.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Big Football News:

Greg Foolallov, spokesman for Google, confirmed what many of us have suspected since late last Thursday: Google has completed a hostile takeover of the NFL, and now owns all of the clubs except the Green Bay Packers.

“We had to do something with all these profits,” Mr. Foolallov said, “and we think there’s great synergy here. Every ball carrier is always looking for holes, and we think our search technology can help.”

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Fondly remembered:

In 1971 I was working for a timeshare company that enabled people all over the country to write and run computer programs on our centralized systems. We had a satellite office in Washington DC. I programmed a communications computer that simultaneously served sixteen Washington-area users, saving a lot of AT&T communications costs.

The Washington people asked if we could add a printer to their site, for efficient remote printing. My manager, Larry, put me on this project, and I gave what turned out to be a fairly reasonable calendar estimate for the job. It was a lot of work. I had to create many different modules and communication paths, because our system, at that time, had no notion of a remotely connected printer.

In the middle of the project, as planned, I, my wife and our sixteen month-old daughter took a twenty-nine day vacation to ramble around Europe. It was the longest vacation I've ever taken from work, and it was a grand pleasure.

About ten days before we left, Larry asked me how well-documented my project was. I told him I was very much in the middle of things, and there wasn’t any documentation of the planned software at all.
“I want you to document it,” Larry said. “While you're away, I may have someone else work on the project.”

That was fine with me. I was excited to think that I might return from Europe to find that the project was making progress. But I wanted to get the software into a certain state before I left. Doing the documentation in addition took a lot of time, and I just about killed myself getting ready to leave.

I handed everything over to my boss, and came back, well-rested, twenty-nine days later. “Larry,” I asked, “has anyone been working on my project?”

“Oh ... uh, no. No,” he said, “it’s right where you left it.”

I can’t tell you how furious I was. I had done all that extra work, and for what? But Larry was one of the nicest managers I ever had, so I didn’t let my anger show. I unpacked my project. Now ... where was I?

Twenty-nine days is a long time.

As I read through my documentation, the work came back to me, in all its detail. What I had already written; what to do next; what every piece of code was for; and exactly what was missing. And of course, I realized why Larry had made me write that documentation.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Holiday Movies That Even Santa Would Watch:

Neil Genzlinger, a columnist for the New York Times, has given us five modest suggestions for Christmas Movies that, somehow, for some reason, nobody has produced yet. He took a wonderful idea and filled it out beautifully. His column is consistently funny, and it’s right here. Here’s a tease, to persuade you to read his column: the titles of his five suggested movies are:
The title of his essay is the same as the title of my blog item.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Computer Automation: We Shall All Suffer.

Here’s a wonderful example of computer automation: we humans tag photos with the names of the people in those photos. Then, aided by face recognition, the great computer websites take over and tag more photos. Pretty soon we can look at any photo on the web and know the names of the people in the pictures. (And that’s just the beginning. There’s a special class of photos on the web that require name-tagging to be done by identifying genitals. I’m sure some developers are working on that, too.)

Whew. Back to reality. A very nice person, who deserves not to be identified, posted a picture of the musical score to Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe on Facebook. I did not add a link to that picture, did I? I DID NOT ADD A LINK TO THAT PICTURE because I do not want to make bad matters worse.

My inbox is clog-full of notifications from Facebook. Here’s what they say: Jim Jones has commented on a picture of you on Facebook. Sarah Brown has commented on a picture of you on Facebook. Muglia Teragladone has on a picture of you on Facebook.

Facebook thinks that the Iolanthe score is a picture of me! And I suspect it always will. I wonder what other musical scores will be identified as ME in the future.

This mess isn’t just annoying. It’s ironic. I own quite a collection of musical scores, and Iolanthe is my favorite G&S operetta. But that’s as close to Iolanthe as I care to get.

By the way, in my own files, I write dates in sortable order: YY/MM/DD. So today's date is a beauty: 11/12/13 .

Monday, December 12, 2011

Despotic Dictator (the Sim Game):

Maybe someone has already implemented my second idea for a Sim game, but that seems unlikely. Most Sims these days are aimed at young, impressionable children who are likely to make in-game purchases. I certainly wouldn't want my young children to play this game:

You are a despotic dictator. Your goal is to stay in power long enough to squirrel away $1,000,000,000 in foreign banks before the people overthrow your rule. To keep the populace in control, you can offer an occasional carrot, and you can control the news and entertainment media. if you build up your secret police, you can kill the leaders of any revolt against you. Your army, if it is strong enough, can attack large-scale demonstrations. You must be careful not to move your sequestered funds out of the country too quickly! You need some of that lucre to keep your police and your army sweet, and the people will rebel more strongly if if taxed too heavily. You can make speeches that threaten the people, or that appease them. If you are lucky, some foreign country will offer you asylum before your head is stuck on top of a pole.

There is a social aspect to this game. The computer keeps a running calculation of how grungy and despicable you are, and you can compare your despicability scores with your friends.

If you win this game, you are supposed to feel awful.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Big Bang (the Sim Game):

As a software developer, I was excited by the idea of a “Sim” game, when the first one was announced. The great idea was that the software would simulate some realistic action – the development of a city, the progress of a war, et cetera – while I, the human player, made small adjustments to the game’s parameters, to improve progress, or to bend the developments in my preferred direction. I couldn’t wait to play a “Sim” game, and I was disappointed to discover that they are just not my thing.

Over time, many sim games have appeared, some of them terrifically sophisticated, and thinking about how the guts of the software makes a Sim work still fascinates me. But in the real world of computer games, I can’t help noticing that programming a basic Sim game has become a dumbed-down cookie-cutter operation. New ones show up every month. Develop a florist business. Build bus routes. Manage a dinosaur park. Tend a poison ivy patch (okay, I made that one up).

Some of these proliferating Sims may be brilliant games, but the bottom line is that there are very obvious ways to tempt people to spend money inside these games, and the developers are me-tooing each other to death in their eagerness to find yet another unoriginal way to empty our pockets.

I think there should be more originality in Sims, and I have two modest suggestions. Here’s the first one: Big Bang (the Sim game): The computer models the development of the universe, starting with the Big Bang. Each turn, you introduce a few small perturbations into the simulated universe. Your goal is to produce a planet that supports life, and you win if a thinking creature evolves on your planet, smart enough for a dozen of the creatures to cooperate to build a home.

What interests me about this game, other than the challenge of programming it, is the meaning of a “turn”. At the beginning of the game, each turn will represent, perhaps, a trillionth of a trillionth of a second. Later, when you are building your black holes and galaxies, a turn might be a hundred million years. And in the endgame, turns might represent dozens of decades.
Tomorrow: Despotic Dictator (Sim Game).

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Too Small, Too Small, Too Small ...

Dear Jim Romenesko, I enjoyed your Obscure Store blog for a long time. I was sorry when you ended it to do something different. Your new web site certainly is different, but I think you are overdoing what you are doing to make your point.

When I look at all that small type, my heart sinks. I tell myself, I’ve got to hang in there, I’ve got to read it, I know it’s going to be worthwhile ... and of course it is.

The content is fine. Please reformat your main web page so that it doesn’t look so formidable, because, really, it isn’t.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

How good is the Kindle Fire?

The reputation of the Kindle Fire is likely to be settled by online shouts and by its volume of purchases. But it is possible to take an unbiased look at how useable the Kindle Fire is, and to make thoughtful recommendations. Please check out this fine article by Jakob Nielsen, Kindle Fire Useability Findings.

I’m very interested in the 7” device size, and Nielsen has some sober observations about it. Neither ordinary web sites, nor web sites designed for the 10” tablet or the smart phone, are easy to use on the 7” tablet. If enough people buy these things, and if, as a result, enough web sites are designed specifically for them, then they can be great online successes. Read Nielsen to see why.

Nielsen skewers magazine reading and book reading on the kindle as well, and his reasons make good reading.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Tim Tebow and the Giants:

I know of no connection between Tim Tebow and the Giants. I just want to make an observation about each of them.

The Giants are not one of the best teams in the NFL, but they nearly defeated unbeaten Green Bay. The Giants ran a clinic on how to beat Green Bay. Other, better teams will study how the Giants' fine coach attacked Green Bay, and they will do better. Green Bay will be defeated this year, thanks to Tom Coughlan.

I've enjoyed watching Tim Tebow play football. Recently I saw him give an interview on TV, dressed like a human being (not like a football player). He spoke well and gave a good account of himself. Frankly, I'm sure Tim Tebow is not gay.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

AT&T and the Medical Business (yet another AT&T war story):

The old AT&T, the original “Ma Bell” telephone monopoly, got deeply into the medical business in the early 1990’s. I know about this because I worked as a consultant – for about five months – for a unit that AT&T funded for the purpose of taking control of, and coordinating, all of AT&T’s medical businesses.

You’re probably wondering what I mean by “Medical business,” telephonically speaking. I mean that AT&T was selling computer systems that enabled doctors to transmit and analyze the results of MRI’s and other high tech test results. AT&T went so far as to create compatibilities between some of the top medical products, so that various hospitals and medical suites could share and compare their work.

You’re probably wondering why a telephone company was selling medical products. Well: read on.

In the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, AT&T was a problem solver for a great variety of businesses. Networks were quite complex in those days, and AT&T’s feeling was: whatever products you have, we’ll tell you how to connect them. In some fields, the incompatibility of popular products was a bane, but since AT&T was often in charge of connecting things, they got into the compatibility business as well. They recommended products that they knew could work together, and they made deals with the manufacturers to configure them and sell them.

Several branches of AT&T fell into the medical business. Any part of AT&T that suffered through the agony of building connectivity for a medical customer immediately advertized their ability to do so, and tried to expand into as many networked medical products as they could.

The group I was in failed, immediately and spectacularly, to control and coordinate these medically-aware compartments of AT&T. AT&T was a feudal company, so there was no pressure from the top for anyone to cooperate with us. Every other AT&T group that was into medicine looked at us and said, “Who are you? Leave us alone, we’re making money.”

Our group was disbanded, and our funding was taken away, after our own group of marketing experts were asked the key question: Why should AT&T be in the medical business, anyway?

Our experts gave a presentation to answer this question. I believe that what they proposed was correct for AT&T, but it was so lame that we were dismatled at once. I hope that our proposal was bad enough to persuade AT&T to get out of medicine altogether, but I have no idea whether there were repercussions. Here was our marketing proposal, in essence:
When customers see how well AT&T can network medical systems, they will realize that they should go to AT&T to network and configure every kind of business system.

Please allow me to point out how lame this was:

1: AT&T at that time believed that they were better than anyone else at networking business systems. They already had a gigantic budget to press this general case; they did not need the medical projects to augment this kind of marketing.

2: What’s the point of being in the medical business, if your reason for being there has nothing to do with medicine? How is that going to keep you cutting edge or even relevant?

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Pills Stuck in my Mouth:

I got into a ridiculous situation this morning. I take six pills every day. Don’t sneer! Most of them are required by my doctor. To get them down, I make a drink by mixing a powder – also required by my doctor – into a half glass of water. The routine goes like this: collect the pills; measure out the powder; mix up the drink; toss all the pills into my mouth and drink.

Today, the first thing I did was to put all the pills in my mouth. I stood there feeling the total idiot. How long before some of those pills melted into an awful taste? I feverishly grabbed the powder and the spoon, mixed in the water and tossed the drink down as fast as I could. The frantic pill-swallowing did not go as well as usual, but I am so thankful there was no aftertaste.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Contact Juggling:

I just discovered an entirely different kind of juggling that I have never seen before: balls roll about the body, instead of whirling through the air. (Penn Jillette mentioned it while being interviewed by Marc Maron.) Apparently some of the skills of Contact Juggling are ancient, but most of the moves have been invented since 1980. Here is an elegant demonstration of Contact Juggling: the artist fiddles with several balls at first, and then, after a short interlude, does wonderful things with a single ball. Sometimes the ball even seems to hang in space, unsupported.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

I learned a new word today (Sports, of course):

Here’s one of the main reasons the Eagles beat the Giants: The Eagles' defense outphysicaled the Giants' offense. (It must be true; I heard it on the radio.)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

My Uncle Al's Rivets:

An anecdote from my Uncle Al sticks in mind, perhaps because of the understandable unfairness. Perhaps it will bother you, too.

Uncle Al was born in 1904. While in college, he worked a summer job on a Manhattan construction site, a moderate high-rise. His job was to test the rivets that had been driven into the steel, for strength and reliability. After a few days, one of the construction workers approached him.
“Kid, you're failing too many rivets.”
Al explained to the worker that his test was entirely objective. He measured the strength of the rivet, and if it was below a certain value, he failed the rivet. (Failed rivets had to be replaced.)
The worker shook his head and wandered away.
Next morning,” Al said, “a bucket of rivets fell out of the sky and landed right next to me with a bang. I looked up at the workers far above me, on the upper floors.”
Al paused, and then he said, “After that, I didn’t fail so many rivets.”

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Coffee and Ground Nuts:

Here’s a weird food suggestion. I thought of it and tried it, expecting the worst, but it works. First, make sure your cup of coffee contains no coffee grounds at all. (I made my coffee in a French Press, so I used a cloth filter.) Add a heaping teaspoon of ground nuts to your coffee cup and stir. (I used walnuts, and I’m eager to try almonds.)

The resulting drink will have a slight nut flavor, and it will also have some texture, as the ground nuts crowd into your mouth. Quite, pleasant, I think.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

A Wonderful Sentence:

A.O. Scott just reviewed the new Adam Sandler movie, Jack and Jill, in the New York Times. There are a lot of things he does not like about Sandler’s brand of humor. He concedes that Sandler can count on a large audience, and – being fair, I would say – he notes a few positive things about this movie. He winds up with a sentence that I shall quote in full. I’m in sympathy with it, but the main reason I’m quoting it is that it is delicious. Here it is:
As for Mr. Sandler, I have always been interested in what he would do next, and I suppose I still am, especially if what he does next is retire.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

A suggestion to Penn State: Shut it down!

A tiny controversy in sports news has caught my interest and indignation. A little background first, and I’ll get to it...

I follow sports news a lot. I got interested in this field after the San Francisco earthquake, which disrupted major sports to a remarkable degree. My local radio sports station, WFAN, covered sports as a business that year, showing how the disruptions to damaged stadium schedules created spellbinding ripple effects. Sports IS a business, and it is both fascinating and frustrating to follow it that way.

I was listening to WFAN when the Penn State scandal erupted. In case you’ve missed it: what has always appeared to be one of the cleanest major sports programs, one that wins games and sees that most of its athletes graduate, also harbored and abetted, for many years, a beloved assistant coach who cultivated abusive relationships with young boys. He has been charged with a number of such crimes, and it is very clear that people in charge of Penn State sports knew about that person’s abusive activities in 1998 and again in 2002. But they did not report him to the police, and, as a result, that man is likely to have damaged more young lives. As late as 2009, he was allowed to run a summer sports camp on Penn State campus that reached out to the very kinds of children he had, according to the current charges, already abused.

The full story has not come out yet, but it appears that people at Penn State decided that it was preferable for their sports programs to turn a blind eye. Which means that the great success of their major sports programs was built on the damaged bodies of abused young boys.

Now here’s the silly controversy: Joe Paterno, an old man and one of the greatest football coaches of all time, is caught in the web of this awful story, because he heard the worst allegations in 2002, and never tried to ensure that those allegations would be passed on to the police. He delivered the eyewitness charges to others in the sports department and did not act when they decided to do nothing. So the question is: should Paterno resign at once, or should he be allowed, as he wishes, to be the official coach for a few more football games?

I can not believe that anyone is seriously discussing how many more Penn State games Paterno should be allowed to coach! What games? The entire sports program is flawed. Poor judgment about the importance of this program is what allowed that other person to go on abusing additional children. College presidents have contemplated scandals in their sports programs before, and they have known what to do: Shut Them Down!

The only question is whether Penn State should cancel its entire major sports programs – for the next five or ten years – before or after this Saturday’s game. Once the entire program is gone, there will be nothing for Paterno to wish to coach.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Power is off!

Back in the late 1960's we used to dream about how to design a system so that a light would go on, to warn you that you no longer had power. Today, there are so many ways of storing electrical power that such lights are routine. But I still find it disconcerting when I recharge my cell phone and its display says:
Recharging ... power is off.

Friday, November 04, 2011

And the really exciting deal is ...

For $100,000, buy $200,000 of Groopon stock! Check it out at groopon dot com. Or better still, be one of their brokers.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Daylight Saving Time (??)

There's a very nice presentation on the pros and (mostly) cons of D.S.T. on John Dvorak's Blog. Reaonably short, amusing, and informative. Let's make up our minds and stop changing the clocks!

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Beethoven and The Girl Next Door:

In the next few weeks, on my WPRB radio program (now on Monday mornings), I plan to play three Beethoven sonatas in performances by the pianist, Thomas Sauer. His performance of the 16th sonata recalled a fascinating anecdote about my professional classical pianist aunt Lucy Brown. You can enjoy my anecdote here. You’ll also discover why I titled this blog item “The Girl Next Door.” Following the anecdote, you’ll find some comments about the pianist’s unusual capabilities.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Trick or treat!

I prepared for Halloween by buying enough candy for 280 trick-or-treaters. That's about how many we got last year, before we had to turn our lights off because we were out of treats. I also had over a hundred dimes as backup this year.

We actually got over 400 trick-or-treaters. Our street seems to have a reputation, and kids come from all over. Sometimes when I opened the door, I saw a dozen kids waiting for their treats. It seemed like they were bussing in, but I never saw their bus. When teenage girls, age seventeen to nineteen, held out their bags and say, "trick or treat," I always resisted the temptation to tell them that I couldn't afford to be their trick.

I thought that a dime was a nice substitute for candy. Indiviually-wrapped candies actually cost more than ten cents apiece around here. (Tiny twizzlers and Reese's Cups cost slightly less.) When I started handing out money ("Don't eat this, it's a dime"), I connected with a lot of passionate kids:
"Money! Awesome."
"He's giving away dimes!"
"A dime, I got a dime!"

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Did La Russa ‘Make a Mistake’ in Game 2 of the 2011 World Series?

The Cardinals lost game two of the world series in the last inning. Tony La Russa took his closer out, and the pitcher he brought in was tagged for the loss. In the press, La Russa’s move was widely described as a mistake. At the time, I thought that was silly, and this seems the ideal time to comment on it.

La Russa is an active manager. He makes moves. He makes decisions during that game that can greatly affect the outcome. Baseball is a game of probabilities. There’s no way to be certain what will happen on a given pitch, or a given at bat. A good tactical move is a decision that, at the moment, increases the chance of winning.

La Russa’s move in game two made sense to him. But even if he was right, and even if the chance of winning increased from say, 80% to 90%, there was always the chance that that other 10% would bite him, and it did.

La Russa made similar moves all season and throughout the playoffs, and his team won. It appears that, in general, he made good moves, and it is very hard to single some of them out as mistakes.

Let me illustrate my point another way: suppose you are trying to win a bet by rolling the same number twice on a die. You are given two dice. One is normal, but the other die has a six on four sides and a one on the other two sides. On your first roll, you are required to use the normal die, and you roll a six. For your second roll, you decide to use the special die. If you roll a one with that die, have you made a mistake?

Friday, October 28, 2011

Yes, he talked:

On my way home, I crossed the paved open area that surrounds the university's rectangular wading pool. It's a rather artsy place in my home town, and the pool is part of the air conditioning system for a nearby elegant building. It was warm enough for people to sun and wade, and one man, a performance artist, stood on a small platform. Utterly still, he held a pose, one hand held high. The other hand was partly open at waist level. I walked past him, marveling at his stolid patience.

What an opportunity. I've rarely talked to a statue. I have talked to runners. I like to say "Good afternoon" to them, expecting them to be frustrated that they have to keep up their breathing and won't be able to make a civil response.

What would the statue do? I walked back and stood before him.
"You should open your right hand more," I said.
"Why do you think so," he responded, speaking softly, rapidly, lips nearly motionless.
"Your gesture needs to be more inclusive," I said.
"I think it's right," he said, and he stood even more still. Our conversation was over.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Electric Razor Anxiety:

Do you shave with an electric razor? Suppose your razor stopped working in the middle of a shave. What would you look like?

My razor has never broken in the middle of a shave, but for some reason, I worry. In order to minimize the risk, I try to shave symmetrically. I shave my right cheek, then my left cheek; my moustache; my right jaw, my left jaw; my chin...

If my silly fear ever materializes, my face will look like I tried to do something intentional to it.


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Savemore Coupon adventure (think Groupon):

My wife gets offers from a company called Savemore that offers Groupon-style deals. She saw an offer to buy $24 worth of coffee from, for only $12; would I be interested?

My coffee-buying habit is to order expensive, really great fair trade coffee from some fine artisanal coffee seller, for something in the neighborhood of $40 (including shipping). For that, I get less than two pounds of coffee. I’m always horrified at the high cost (and since the coffee crop is under attack from global weather changes, the prices always go up). In fact, buying coffee by the cup at Starbucks is more expensive, but I always compare the cost to cheap coffee, which costs six to ten dollars the pound.

I make up for my extravagance by buying the next few pounds at the supermarket, and then I’m ready to buy “fancy” coffee again. I looked into to see what they had.

Roaste is a new (to me) kind of online coffee seller. Their website features many fascinating coffee brands from what Amazon would call affiliates. At the Roaste site, you can buy from such well-known brands as Caribou and even Starbucks, but they feature many, many brands with intriguing names; if you’re not careful, your brain will tell you that you have fallen into coffee heaven.

I kept reminding myself that Roaste might not be coffee heaven; what counts is the quality of each affiliate that interests you, and you have to check these brands out for yourself.

I was also concerned about the price of shipping. Ever since coffee has become more expensive, the price of (coffee) shipping has risen even more. You have to wonder whether some of that “shipping” cost is extra profit for the coffee seller. I purchased the Savemore coupon while worrying that the cost of shipping might wipe out the $12 I was saving by buying the coupon. (Actually, I believe I am saving $10, because Savemore charged me two dollars for something.)


So here’s what happened when I went to the website, selected my coffees, entered my order and checked out the shipping cost. Here’s what I saw on the page (numbers approximate):
24.95 The two coffees I selected, types A and B.
49.95 UPS 3-day shipping.
74.90 Total.

$74.90!! Fifty dollars for shipping! I won’t tell you the thoughts that ran through my head, because this isn’t that kind of blog. Clearly my “pay $12 for $24” value had been completely wiped out by the outrageous shipping cost.

I called Roaste’s customer service and spoke to a helpful person named Tim.
“I see your problem,” he said. “There’s a typo. It says that Coffee A is twelve pounds of coffee, but it’s really twelve ounces.”

Problem fixed, here’s the bottom line: the Savemore coupon covered the cost of shipping, so my order will cost about 2/3 what I would normally have paid. And, I am hoping I’ve found a wonderful new coffee company, one of Roaste’s affiliates. I’ll blog about them if they’re real good.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

It's all Pink:

The movement to go pink against breast cancer has gone viral. Last week I saw a pro football team wearing pink footgear for the cause. Pretty soon nearly everything will be pink, inclusing these important products:
  • Cigarette packs
  • Submachine guns
  • Baby boy's and girl's diapers
  • Eggs
  • Chutes and Ladders
  • Starbucks Coffee
  • Top hats
  • Stop Signs
And have you seen the new pink chocolate? White chocolate is out...

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Don’t Let Mosquitoes Land on You:

I had to work outdoors in the late afternoon and early evening, prime time for mosquitoes in New Jersey. I was swatting them right and left until I remembered that I had found a way to keep them from landing on me: keep moving. Any time I stopped to think, I kept my whole body swaying and my arms in motion. Try it, this technique might work for you; although mosquitoes love some people so much, nothing will stop them.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Robison, not Robison!

When I was fifteen, my mother sat me down and told me that when I grew up, I should change my last name. From what it was, to, oh, anything else. I was horrified. I assured her that I would never change my last name. I have kept it ever since. But you know what? My mother had a point.

My last name is hard to pronounce, and hard even to imagine. It is: Robison. There’s no ‘n’ in the middle! It’s not Robinson. And it is not pronounced Rahbison, either. The first ‘o’ is long.

When my mother, in middle age, entered graduate school, the bursar looked at her name on her papers and said, “You do mean Robinson, don’t you?”

When I explained to my friends in teenage camp that there was only one n in my last name, they called me Robinso.

Today, I watched my doctor speak into a microphone to record the results of my visit. This is the 21st century, so he was talking to a speech-to-text system, not just making an audio recording. As you know, speech-to-text logic is not exactly perfect, and sometimes he had to stop, delete some words, and speak again. The first time he mentioned my name, he said, “Mr. Robison ... delete ... Rahbison...”
“It’s Robison!” I said.
He looked at me apologetically. “I have to say Rahbison or the computer will spell it wrong,” he said.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Style Over Everything: Steve Jobs.

I was planning to write this piece, or something like it, before I heard that Steve Jobs had died. Well, here goes...

Bill Gates appreciated what a marvelous sense of style Steve Jobs had. Gates admitted he envied Jobs for it, knowing he lacked the same. Nothing highlights the difference between those two men than the history of the tablet device.

For years,  Bill Gates championed the CD drive. At a time when the CD seemed good only for audio, Gates saw it as the savior of software. He pushed the CD when it was too expensive. He pushed it when too few people had drives to use CDs. And he saved us from software installations requiring twenty and more floppy disks.

For years, Bill Gates championed the tablet. He persuaded many companies to build tablets that flopped. Steve Jobs designed the tablet that succeeded.

The iPad is a not a success because of some brilliant insight, or because of changes in the cost and power of hardware. It is a success because Jobs envisioned every important aspect of the device, and planned the computing world it could live in. His comprehensive vision succeeded where one of the richest companies in the world had failed and failed again.

Bill Gates, and Microsoft, could have afforded to buy, or hire, the sense of style that Gates knew he lacked. There must be other geniuses out there who can painstakingly discover every opportunity a product requires in order to succeed, and who know how to design it into a world of success. But Microsoft, as far as I know, never hired that person; or perhaps they hired that person without the authority to move worlds into the ideal alignment a tablet needed to succeed.

Most reports suggest that Steve Jobs was a tyrannical leader. In business, employees can rebel against tyranny. But the directors and employees at Apple had the sense to let their leader and his vision lead them.

Steve Jobs changed the face of computing, and it may be many years before the computer world moves on to some paradigm other than his. Jobs dramatically improved the value of smart phones (good), lowered the cost of music (good, I think), and greatly lowered the price of computer software (bad, I think). He has also dragged us away from the lassez-faire computer environment that the IBM PC and Windows gave us, to a more walled-garden approach where approved software is most welcome. In the long run, this walled garden may stifle development and progress. But we are going to live with Steve Jobs’ vision for a long time.

Fool’s Golf (2):

Yesterday I told you about Gameloft’s Golf 3 game. This game always suggests where to hit the ball, and I’ve found that following its advice is a good way to try to make par. On one hole on the Egyptian course, there is an obstacle about 175 yards from the tee: a towering black rock, high and wide. I have tried hitting around this rock, into the rough, with poor results. So I decided to try the game’s suggested tee shot: 163 yards straight down the fairway, in front of the rock.

I made this shot, and now my ball was ten yards from what looked like an impassable obstacle. Black rock reached high over my head. Black rock prevented me from aiming 45 degrees to the left or the right.

I couldn’t imagine what the game would suggest for my second shot. Well, it suggested that I aim right through the rock to the pin, 180 yards away. (The game showed me a dotted line going through the rock.)
Who am I to argue with the game? Maybe the rock isn’t really there. Maybe it’s a test of faith. I hauled off and drove the ball hard.

The ball bounced off the rock, over my head, and rolled most of the way back to the tee.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Fool’s Golf (1):

I’m enjoying a golf game on my iPad by Gameloft, called Golf 3. The game is free or nearly so, but Gameloft makes its money by charging you to do things. You can play, free, about a dozen minutes a day. If you want to play more; if you want to play on more courses; if you want better clubs, or clothing  that miraculously makes you a better golfer; then you have to spend real money.

This game is for me, because I know I will not spend $$ on it. I can’t get addicted to it, because I can’t play it very much. Ideal.

The game experience is very nice. The graphics are pretty realistic. Animals wander around the courses, even unicorns, to watch me play. Tomorrow, I will tell you about one of the most bizarre holes on Golf 3’s courses.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Al Aronson, Painter:

Al Aronson is a neighbor of mine, and his fine paintings are full of energy and pleasing color. If you spend a few minutes gazing at his online gallery, chances are that his work will lift your spirits. You can find out more about him and contact him through his website.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Knick, Knack, Knuckle-whack:

English has a lovely collection of words that begin with “kn”. These words have character, and there aren’t nearly enough of them. You need to contemplate a word like knude for just two seconds, to realize what we’re missing. I’ve made a list of suggestions here, although I doubt they’ll get into the OED any time soon. These words just sing, don’t you think?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Friday bad Word-play Hay Day:

I wish there was a really high-definition picture on the web of some hay. In great detail, larger even than this one: . 8,000 by 8,000 pixels, maybe. If you wanted to examine the whole picture on your screen, you’d have to take a scroll in the hay.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ominous Dark, Cloud on the Ground:

On September 11, 2001, I went to a meeting in the eastern suburbs of Philadelphia. I drove back north on the New Jersey Turnpike in mid-afternoon. To my right, the entire horizon – and I could see a lot of it – sported a line of dark, ominous cloud at ground level, tall enough to be visible everywhere, spreading north and south as far as the eye could see. It was smoke from the collapse of the the towers that had spread right down the Jersey shore line. I wondered how terrifying that sight would have been, had I not known what had happened. There was no way to tell whether it was drifting toward me, and I had never seen anything like it.

I wondered what that sight would be like to anyone who did not know about the disaster. I could imagine getting off the turnpike and driving away from it as fast as I could, and calling my wife to tell her to do the same.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

I love my VibraLite 3 Watch:

The alarm goes off! Buzz! Wake up! Pump adrenaline!
Waking up to an alarm is a very individual matter. That’s why somebody invented an alarm clock that makes a loud noise and flies around the room until you catch it.

I’m the type that reacts swiftly to a loud alarm, pumping adrenaline and jumping into action too fast. The last time my phone woke me up, I grabbed it and mashed the end button, before I could even realize I had hung up on a phone call, not an alarm.

It’s the adrenaline that bothers me. As we get older, it’s better to wake up gently, get all the systems in working order before trying to do too much. I bought the VibraLite 3 because it reminded me of a movie I enjoyed, In Like Flint. The master hero in this movie twice puts himself into suspended animation, waking up only when his watch, responding to an alarm, extended a little hand and tickled the inside of his wrist. (He used this ability to ship himself into the enemy fortress.)

I never forgot that wrist tickle, and the VibraLite 3 is a watch that can beep or vibrate (or both) when one of its two alarms goes off. I had a practical reason for buying the watch, too. I need to wake up without waking my wife, and the vibrating alarm does the trick. But best of all: unlike all the other alarms in our house, it wakes me gently. Maybe it will add years to my life.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

I Love My Website:

Steve Martin used to do this bit in his comedy routine: “Oh, my shoe’s untied!” and he would bend down to his shoe. The TV camera would zoom in on his perfectly tied shoe. Martin would then stand up and say “I like to play tricks on myself.” So do I, even though they are unintentional.

As I entered the local supermarket, my eye caught a stand of plaques for dog lovers. Signs like: I {heart} my Basenji. I {heart} my Cockerspaniel. I {heart} my Poodle. I {heart} my Website. I ...

Wait, wait! I might want to buy that one.

I went back for a closer look. The plaque actually said:

I {heart} my Westie.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

A new definition of 'Optimist':

An optimist is someone - like me - who takes off one pair of glasses before looking for the other pair.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

An Unbelievably Stupid bit of Security:

This is an Internet Explorer 8 story. I have been keeping my security set to disable attempts to run ActiveX controls from websites. A rational person suggested that for some types of ActiveX control settings, I should change “disable” to “prompt”. That seemed reasonable; an app that wants to run the control will ask for permission, right?

Well, with hardly any apps running, we started to see a prompt something like this, renewed every three seconds: Would you like to permit ActiveX controls to run? After answering NO to about fifty of these message boxes, I realized what was wrong, and changed my IE8 stteings back to Disable.

Now please note that the message box identified only “Internet Explorer”. That program was not even running as an application, so evidently some program or service in the background was trying to run it. That program did not identify itself, nor did it tell me what control it proposed to run. How am I supposed to give informed permission?

Note to Microsoft: when you allow a program to ask the user for permission to do something, the program and the requested action need to be identified.

Further note to Microsoft: If you can’t keep the same program from annoying the user every few seconds, don’t let it annoy the user at all.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

It’s illegal to launder money:

I know that it’s illegal to launder money, but I can’t help it. Usually, what I find at the bottom of the washing machine are a few shiny coins, but this time, it was six one dollar bills. After I dried them out, they still looked pretty dirty, so I think if I can get them back into circulation, no one will suspect.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Washington Monument Cracked:

New(?) cracks have been found in the Washington Monument, after the Virgina earthquake.

Well, now we know. The earthquake was a terrorist act.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Very Close Quarters:

“Rich” was one of the best directors I ever worked for. He had a hard-driving type-A personality, and he expected a lot from us. But he was always open about what he was trying to do, including the why and the how of it.

Rich and “Dave”, one of the programmers in his group, drove to work together, a commute of about an hour each way. They covered about 25 miles of limited access parkway, and 15 miles of a nerve-wracking heavily trafficked two-lane road.

We wondered what it was like for Dave to be cooped up, hours each day, with his director. Dave did not report directly to Rich, but rather to one of the managers who worked for him. All that time together gave Dave direct access to Rich’s ear, or else it gave Rich wonderful opportunities to chew Dave out over anything.

Years later I ran into Dave and I asked him: what was it like, carpooling with Rich?

“I thought I was gonna die,” he said. He looked at my shocked face and explained.

“Rich had a radar detector. He set his cruise control fifteen miles over the speed limit. Whenever the detector went off, he slammed the brakes and dropped our speed to thirty. I expected to get rear-ended every time.”

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Who do you trust?

When the Green Bay Packers visited the White House on Friday to celebrate the team's Super Bowl title, linebacker Desmond Bishop wasn't with his teammates.

That’s the lead sentence of reporter Chris Chase’s story on one of the stupidest, idioticest examples of security-screening to date. The entire Green Bay Packer team was there to identify Desmond Bishop. Why did he need his driver’s license to get into the White House?

In order to see how utterly silly it was that Bishop was denied entry due to lack of an ID, just imagine the converse: Suppose a person claiming to be Desmond Bishop showed up, and he had his driver’s license AND his passport, but the entire team said, “We know Desmond Bishop. This isn’t Desmond Bishop!” Would the security people let him in?

I’m embarrassed for my country.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


The sign next to the local Supermarket said “Summer Concerts, Thurs Nites., 6:30 to 8:30pm.” I knew at once that something was wrong. In the food biz, when they want to make us think of an ingredient that’s not in the product, they use spellings like Kreme. So my instinct told me that these couldn’t be night concerts. There was plenty of room on the sign to spell the word “nights”. What was going on?
Eventually I worked it out. It’s summer here, and night doesn’t really fall until after 8:30. They aren’t night concerts, they are evening concerts. Trust the food industry to be consistent.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

More AT&T War Stories: (10)

Here’s another AT&T story, more personal than the previous blog entry, and also driven by the attention that security guards pay to me.

My first consulting job at AT&T, in their tumultuous year of 1985, was in a group called the PIC, which quickly grew to unit of a hundred people, to enable AT&T to bid on complex government integrated computer contracts. On Day One, we were months behind schedule, and everyone worked frantically at everything.
I was managing a project, and I needed a specification that a manager in Chicago had just written. AT&T believed in Email, but hardly anyone used it, so I called the guy to see how fast I could get his document.

“I’ll be at a meeting in Jersey tomorrow,” he said. “Just join the meeting, and at the end we’ll find each other. I’ll give you a copy.”

He told me how to find the meeting. The building was familiar to me because many of my colleagues in the PIC ran frantic errands there to use its computers, which were better than we had at that time. So next morning, I went to, let’s call it, building Y.

Of course, the security guard did not let me in. He looked my badge over and told me that a PIC badge did not give access to Y. I insisted that it did, because many of my coworkers, wearing the same badges, had been working there. After a polite argument, he said, “I tell you what. I’ll take your badge and check it out. You go do what you came here to do. On your way out, stop here and I’ll give you your badge back." Consequently, I entered the building unbadged! I’m sure that every employee, consultant and visitor, except me, was badged.

The moment I entered the meeting, someone asked a question: “How much business are we doing in this suite of products? Are the numbers worth the effort we have to make in all these meetings?”

After a short silence, a senior manager replied. “That’s highly confidential information. Is everyone in this meeting cleared to hear it?”

The questioner assured us that everyone in the meeting was cleared to hear these sales figures. I was sure that this was not a good moment for me to object, so I listened, and I got an earful about a set of sick products.

After the meeting, I found my Chicago manager and got my document. Then I returned to the guard. He assured me that I was not allowed access to building Y, and in the future, he would be careful to keep all my coworkers out as well. My PIC friends all got upset with me!

Monday, August 08, 2011

More AT&T War Stories: (9)

Most of the really bizarre experiences I had in my software career occurred during the few years I consulted at AT&T. This is a story I was told, but what triggered it was something about me: security guards always give me a careful look. I stand out to them in ways that most people don’t.

On this occasion, I was visiting the enormous Bell Labs installation (Napierville) that was just transferring itself into AT&T proper. (About two years later, it transferred itself back to being Bell Labs.) In order to visit, I needed a visitor’s badge, and my hosts advised me to please walk casually past the security guard without a badge, to save them a lot of paperwork.

This “sneakwalk” was their custom for visitors. I tried, although, as I advised them in advance, it was hopeless. The guard stopped me, and I waited while the paperwork got done. And then they told me their story.

One of their programmers used to complain that the security was all for show. The guards really paid no attention to anything. “I could paste the face of a gorilla over my badge,” he said, “and they wouldn’t say a word.”

The guy joked about this a lot, and one day he announced that next morning, he was really going to do it. One of his ‘friends’ warned the security guard.

The next morning the guy walked past the guard, flashing his badge, with a picture of a gorilla face where his face should be. The guard waited until he was about thirty feet away, and then called him back. “Let’s see that badge.”

The guy handed over his badge and trembled while the guard studied it carefully, silently, looking from him to the badge and back. What rules had he broken? What awful punishment was about to fall upon him?

After about thirty seconds, the guard said, “Looks good.” He handed the badge back to the guy and let him go.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Is it hot enough for you?

Nobody has ever asked me if it was hot enough for me. But I've realized that on a hot and humid day like today, I'd know what to say. Now bear in mind that I greatly prefer hot weather to cold weather:

Q: Is it hot enough for you?
A: No, but it is cold enough for me.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

The Deluxe eDesk by LapGear for the ipad, etc:

The Deluxe eDesk is an inexpensive gadget that makes it easy for you to use your tablet while it is tilted. You set the eDesk on a table, set the tilt you prefer, and place your tablet on its rack. You can also use it as a carrying case for your tablet (the inside compartment is deep enough for an iPad 1), and it comes with a handy cloth to wipe the glass screen. Check it out here. I got mine at Bed, Bath and Beyond for $21 with a store coupon.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

I would like an invite to Spotify:

I'd appreciate it if any of you can give me a Spotify invitation. I'm already to go, with the Spotify app on my iPad.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

iA Writer: Terrific for writing on an iPad:

If you want to draft some writing, or edit what you’ve written, one writing program is far better than all the others: iA Writer, by Information architects. Their program adds one more line to the keyboard, and these keys make all the difference:
Move one word forward or back
- ; :
apostrophe, and smart quote signs
open/close parentheses
cursor keys to move one CHARACTER right or left.

These keys make it so much more easy to use a soft keyboard. All Apple apps should have the option of adding this line of keys. The keyboard keys are still large (leaving relatively small space for the text itself when the keyboard is up), but if you’re at all serious about writing, you know that seeing less text can be a benefit, not a hindrance.

This is the program that turns the iPad into a producer, not just a consumer!

Please note that you’ll find many reviews online complaining that this program does not support smart quotes. Well it does now, unless you’re British.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

NFL Madness:

The wild free-agent week for the newly unlocked-out NFL is generating the best preseason publicity the league has ever had. But time is short, and there has been understandable confusion. During a raucous, hastily-called press briefing, the general manager of the Greedbay Packers shamefacedly owned up to his hasty signing of Carlos Beltran to a free agent contract. Taking sharp questions from the press, he insisted that Beltran could still help the team.

In a possibly related story, rumor has it that owners are responding favorably to an unusual proposal for a change in the rules that govern field goals.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Major League Ballplayers are different from You and Me:

I heard the Yankee's play-by-play announcer say: "Granderson's had a perfect day. Two singles, and hit by a pitch."

If a major league pitcher hit me with a hard, ninety-mile-per-hour ball, it would not be a perfect day. Ouch.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Cardamom Water:

Add a pinch of cardamom powder to ice water and mix well. delicious!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Camry:

I play a license plate anagram game. I apply a rule for generating six letters from license plates with four letters and two digits, and then I try to form a six-letter word from those letters. Recently, I saw a plate that I could not make into a six-letter word, but I was able to form this:
A Camry
Of course, I checked out what kind of car it was:

A Honda Civic.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Chip, Chip, ... (the Mets):

The Mets have dealt their closer to the Brewers, which has the happy result of saving the Mets from having to pay him another $17 million. I heard a lot of analysis about this move today, and the focus was on all that money, but I think that this trade signals something more important.

The Mets brass have given up on winning in the playoffs this year, and they are planning for the future. Here’s how we know that: the Mets have played way above themselves for a long time. On paper, they are barely a .500 team, yet they are holding their own, and better, against some pennant contenders. What this “no name” team has going for them is chemistry. The players have bonded somehow, and they are a self-supporting group. If you want to win, you do not mess with the chemistry.

Trading your closer, when you are not sure how you are going to replace him, definitely messes with the chemistry. So we know that management has given up on this year. And I agree! I’ve seen too many seasons where the Mets played really well till past the trade date, then collapsed. They are not a good team this year. It’s more important to get some help for the future.

The tricky thing for management is to give away some of their players without raising the ire of their fans. So they will make the next deal after the Mets lose enough games to suggest that this years’ bubble is over. If by some miracle the Mets keep winning, I suspect management will sigh and ride the increase in rabid attendance to the end of the season.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Please Invite me to Google+

Please Invite me to Google+ . I'd like to start using it.

And by the way: if you spill your coffee, it's okay to cry over it. Perhaps that's because it has less nutritional value than milk.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Forget about whether the Mets should make an offer to Jose Reyes:

Mets fans and the announcers and columnists who follow the team are having a field day deciding what sort of offer the Mets should make to Reyes. One announcer, using rather colorful language, said the Mets should offer the full $150 million or so for seven years, even though Reyes would not be worth it after about four years, because the first few years would be so exciting.

Forget this speculation. Here’s the bottom line: I’m sure Reyes does not want to re-sign with the Mets. He can play for a much better team next year, and on a better team, he will be a more potent player. Reyes’ current contract with the Mets is a poor one for him, and the Mets’ failure to greatly sweeten it must make Reyes want to play elsewhere, anyway. Trying to keep Reyes is futile.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

The Harry Potter Filibuster:

What a strange name, but that’s what Princeton Public Library called its public reading of the first Harry Potter book. They scheduled it for 9:30 a.m. To 7:30 p.m., today, but I believe they finished before six. Many of the readers were children, avid Potter fans themselves, and I shall call this a memorable occasion.

I signed up to read out loud and got the second slot, 9:45 to 10. I dropped by later to see how they were doing, and they asked me to read the 5 p.m. slot, very near the climactic battle of the book. I had to come up with nine voices, and I must confess that I did not distinguish Ron and Harry very well. My voices were:

Harry, Ron, Hermione, Narrator, Snape, McGonagall, Peeves, Neville, and Harry imitating the Bloody Baron.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

My first experience with Applecare:

I got a surprising look at the depth of thought that Steve Jobs put into the iPad this week.

When I got my iPad, I was spellbound by the care that went into its design. It is so much prettier than any other computer I have used. Even the packaging was pleasant, and I saved some of the package inserts because I liked their looks. The ease of setting the iPad up and the consistency in its interface have made me a Mac fan.

When I bought the iPad, I decided not to buy another 32GB, in order to buy the Applecare support package. I thought I was buying insurance against some weird hardware problem that Apple would not want to fix for everybody, some strange mistake in the iPad 2 design for which I would want favorable correction terms. I had no idea.

I made my first call to Applecare support because the “Pages” iPad app refused to email a document to me. Pages told me that I needed to specify an email address in “Settings,” and I had done that.

My problem was diagnosed for a while by a support person, and then I was passed to a supervisor. It turned out that the Pages program was telling me the wrong thing. (If you’re curious, Pages gets its email address from the iPad “Mail” program, where at least one address must be defined and turned on.)

The supervisor thanked me for my patience, gave me his phone number, and encouraged me to call him for any kind of problem. In talking to my two Applecare guys, I never had the feeling that they wanted to get me off the phone as soon as they could. And that’s when it hit me:

We know that the iPad has succeeded where all of the previous tablet products failed, because the iPad was conceived as a Media device, something more advanced than a TV set, something that ought to be easy to use like a TV set. There’s a lot of software on iPads, making them somewhat complicated beasts. Apple (make that Steve Jobs) knows that keeping the iPad simple to use requires providing excellent support. And the kind of support I experienced keeps the potential customer base as large as possible, easing the way for many users who are not computer experts.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

I knew it would fit:

My mother-in-law firmly believed that they never made anything as good as they used to. I wonder what she would think about my current PDA/Phone carrying case.

When I travel on the NJ turnpike, I always check out those vending sites that sell small leatherette cases. I’m very particular about how I carry my cellphone and my PDA. I want to put them in a double case. The small outside pocket (some say a phone should not be carried too close to your body) is for the phone. The inner pocket has to be large enough for my PDA, and most double cases are not large enough. I also require the case to have a sewn belt loop; not a velcro-closed loop that can fall open and cause me to lose hundreds of dollars-worth of electronics.

My previous case was large enough for my PDA, but it was ostentatiously large. So I was happy to find a much smaller case that looked just the right size. After I bought it, I realized that I had not, as is my usual custom, actually put the PDA in it to make sure it was large enough. Well, I had already bought it. I slung it on my belt and tried to squeeze the PDA in.

I could barely get the zipper over it. It was an incredibly tough fit. “No problem,” I told myself. (I’m an optimist.) “The case will stretch.”

Wow, did it stretch. A few weeks later, I can’t imagine having any trouble with that zipper.

If the case stretched that fast, how long will it last?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Defective Scrabble Set:

My aunt was, for many years, an addicted Scrabble player. She once devised a sort of Scrabble Solitaire suitable for publishing in newspapers. Her game began with a rack of seven letters, and challenged you to find the best play. Then, in each column, the new board position appeared, and you were challenged to make the best possible play with your current rack, etc. I believe she did persuade a newspaper to run this Scrabble column.

I was an avid teenage player, and she gave me what was, at the time, the best Scrabble game for sale, a beautiful board with elegant plastic pieces.

After I married, I mostly played Scrabble with my father-in-law. We were evenly matched and appreciated each other’s style. When he visited us, of course we used the beautiful set I got from my aunt.

He hated it. There was a defect in the set that I had discovered shortly after I received it, and he also noticed it right away. A Scrabble set has 100 tiles, but mine had 101; there was an extra ‘W’.

I loved the extra W. I hated the situation that arises too often in Scrabble, where you have six or seven vowels and can’t make a decent play anywhere. To me, that W evened the balance.

My father-in-law complained about the extra W. He often insisted on playing without it. One day, the W disappeared. You can draw your own conclusions. I certainly did.

Monday, June 20, 2011

F*%@, F*%@, F*%@ Safari!

I almost think I would rather spend a month in hell than have to use Safari on the iPad. These two make a horrible pair.

This morning, a friend sent me an anguished, beautifully argued plea to vote against a bill in congress, HR 1249, the so-called “America Invents Act”. I sat down at my iPad to forward his argument, with a preface, to my congressman.

Emailing a congressman requires me to fill out a webpage form with many semi-personal details. I did that. Then I selected the appropriate edit window (on the same web page), to write my message. I wrote my intro, and then I went back to the different Safari window with my friend’s argument that I wished to quote. I copied it and returned to the congressional web form, where I discovered that Safari had helpfully forgotten everything I had typed into it.

After I finished pounding my fist on the table, I decided that I had been doing my work in the wrong order. I should FIRST paste what my friend wrote, then fill in the other fields. So I did the paste, and it worked just fine.

Now here’s where Safari and iPad work together to persuade a person to beat his fist into a pulp. There are no cursor keys on the iPad, so how do I “scroll up” to the top of this edit window? Safari responds to finger motions to scroll the entire web page up and down, but not to scroll inside a window.

Damn you, Safari. And Damn your little friend iPad, too.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Aralon: Sword and shadow for iPhone and iPad: How to do it!

If you're an iPhone or iPad user, and you like fantasy computer games, please check out my semi-FAQ at Aralon, Sword and Shadow: The Plan, with various tips and advice. I've collected information from all over the web, and added some tips of my own, such as your best chance to play the Orc Castle (Uthu) without crashing.

There's something about these computer games that only devotees can understand. One person complained in a forum that he had gotten stuck after playing his game for twenty hours. Due to a bug, or perhaps a careless action on his part, it was now impossible to make progress. He summed his situation up as follows: That's twenty hours, wasted!

Someone else commented right back to him: Twenty hours playing any computer game is twenty hours wasted.

There ought to be a law!

I bought a $0.99 app for my iPad this morning. Before buying it, I had to agree to the new and changed terms of the iTunes legal agreement. This legal agreement is presented on my iPad as a series of FORTY-ONE PAGES, each of which requires scrolling to read. How many hours am I expected to study this agreement before accepting it? Sheesh.

It could be worse. These ‘agreements’ to use software used to appear onscreen in tiny type, sometimes laid out so that you had to scroll horizontally to read EACH LINE; and not accessible to copy-and-paste. Double Sheesh.

Companies ought to be required to make it easy to review the legalese we’re agreeing to before buying or downloading software. If you weren’t born yesterday, you know that some of these agreements bury nasty terms in them, such as claiming ownership of content that you upload.

Finally, no one should be allowed to write a contract that says that the other party agrees to any future changes the contractor wishes to make. “Real” contracts generally say the exact opposite: “This is the only contract between X and Y, and it cannot be changed without written consent of both X and Y.” Triple Sheesh.

Monday, June 13, 2011

When people say that, it’s always a lie:

There’s a coarse joke about how when you hear a certain statement, it’s always a lie. I’ve discovered that modern technology has given us a new statement that, when you hear it, is also a lie. This lie has probably been around for over a hundred years, but it can’t be much older than that, and it has become popular only recently. Here’s the setting:

You are listening to, or viewing, a podcast or some recorded production.

Somebody does, or says, something embarrassing. Then you hear the lie, and it is always a lie:

Don’t worry, I’ll edit that out.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Wilpon Juices up the Mets:

The Mets’ owner, Fred Wilpon, recently did the unthinkable (and, apparently, the unpardonable): he criticized three of his better players in a printed interview. Fred was forced to eat crow, using the phone to apologize to the players. Worse yet, he was told to apologize by phone, since he would not have been welcome in person.

But guess what?

Two of those players, Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran (until Beltran was injured; I told them to trade him before his next injury) were obviously stung by Wilpon’s criticism, and have been playing their best baseball of the year to prove him wrong. The third player, the gracious David Wright, can’t do anything to prove Wilpon wrong until he’s fully recovered from an injury.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Just one Lichee:

While doing some major shopping today, I decided to buy a Lichee. They are relatively expensive, but they make a great treat. I memorized the code – 4309 – because I was sure the cashier would otherwise have to look it up.

The young woman who packed my groceries was obviously the daughter of Chinese parents. She teased me about my Lichee:
“Don’t you want to buy more than one? After you eat it, won’t you want more?”

Ehhh, she was right.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

I went to a big, local cinema to see and hear Wagner's Die Walkure performed 'live' at the Met (CON):

It seems so great to get a Metropolitan Opera Experience close to your own home, for only $18. But I may not ever do it again. The crucial problem?

It was too loud. The tenor made my whole head buzz with his resonance. After the first act, I politely asked, and they turned the volume down. It was bearable, but still too loud. A modern orchestra can be unbearably loud in a theater with good acoustics, but this was ridiculous, and it is mostly out of the movie patron’s control.

It was too long. There were two twenty minute intermissions, and in addition, there were interviews and explanations that greatly added to the fun, but let’s face it: 5.5 hours is too long for even a long opera like Die Walkure.

It was not real. In order to record the singers well, they must have been miked. (One reviewer noted that the sound changed when two singers stood close together, suggesting to him an interaction between their mikes.) Opera singers train to project their voices in vast theaters against the orchestral sounds. I would rather be sitting at the Met and know the quality of each voice, without the fake power that microphones can bestow on singers.

It was ‘produced’. This was not exactly a live performance. The video was taken from a live performance at the Met, one in which, memorably, the opening curtain was delayed 30 minutes for a computer glitch. But there were sudden cuts in the camera work, and here’s my bottom line: I want someone to tell me how this opera video was made, so that I don’t have to suspect that they made some edits to correct less-than-perfect moments. In any case, it must have been a challenge to edit together the sound from all its microphoned audio sources, and the result could be somewhat artificial. The interviews all sounded as if they were done during the live performance, but must I really believe that? Some of the artists seemed awfully relaxed at having their own intermission time eaten up by interviews. Again, I’d like to know how this wonderful video was really put together.

The video did not quite manage to do justice to the orchestral sound. I suspect that is the result of editing together the miked singers with the orchestra. One reviewer complained that the singers seemed to have ‘3D’ sound, but the orchestra was ‘2D’, that is, sonically flat, when the whole orchestra played. (The quiet sections that featured solos by orchestral players were fantastic.)

In sum, I’d like to attend another of these ‘live’ opera videos if I knew they were reasonably true to an actual performance, and assured not to be too loud. I want to know how I’m being entertained.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

I went to a big, local cinema to see and hear Wagner's Die Walkure performed 'live' at the Met (PRO):

Gosh, what a spectacle. The singers for this performance got great reviews, and I thought they were wonderful. The staging had its fascinating moments, and it's notwworthy that this particular stage equipment enabled the Valkyries to sing their parts near the audience. Apparently, traditional staging methods put the Valks partially behind a curtain, so they cannot sing solo, and have to double their voice parts. The Ride of the Valkyries is spectacular theater, due to Wagner's wonderful voice writing.
This video was Opera with subtitles and closeups! And the actor-singers (with one exception) were up to the kind of acting that makes closeups worthwhile. This astonishing opera is drama, drama, drama, with great singing and music to set the moods. There was great doubt when subtitles were first introduced into opera, and this was my first experience of them. Without them, I would have had a good idea of what was going on; with them, I knew how to interpret every gesture and vocal subtlety. I think I would want subtitles even for an opera in English.
Tomorrow, I will post my gripes.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Holiday Weekend confuses the MLB? (Major League Baseball):

It's Memorial Day Weekend. No work Monday, for many of us, so we can afford to stay up late Sunday night. And what does the MLB do? It schedules day games on Sunday, and night games (as usual) on Monday. They ought to schedule the other way 'round.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

I didn’t know ...

Now that I have an Ipad2, I have entered Apple’s world of Gestures. At my age, it’s not easy to learn lots of new gestures that do cool things, but from reading the manual, I know that there are some great time-saving two-finger and three-finger salutes gestures. I’ve been through this before with a gesture-enabled fingerpad, and my approach, which doesn’t work very well, is to try to learn one just new gesture at a time.

I feel a lot less frustrated today, because I found a fine essay by Donald A. Norman and Jakob Nielsen that rips this new gesture world to pieces. To whet your appetite, they point out that there’s no consistency across apps to help you learn gestures; and that there’s no way to SEE when the capability of gestures is present. Please read the essay itself for its many memorable points. Here’s a quote:

Whenever we discus these examples with others, we invariably get two reactions. One is "gee, I didn't know that." The other is, "did you know that if you [do] this (followed by some exotic swipe, multi-fingered tap, or prolonged touch) that the following happens?" Usually it is then our turn to look surprised and say "no we didn't know that." This is no way to have people learn how to use a system.

You know, I think I would prefer a gesture-based system that uses the Microsoft Kinect technology. Then we could we could replace [alt+F4] with the most common one-finger salute.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

WPRB Playlists for my programs at 6:00 A.M. on Tuesdays, etc....

The WPRB playlists are back where they belong, at WPRB.COM. Click on one of the Playlist alternatives. You can even use the playlist SEARCH feature to find specific pieces, recordings and (often) playtimes.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Dropped calls: iPhone and Verizon:

Do you remember, when we heard that there was going to be a Verizon-enabled iPhone, we heard stories all from over the press about how Verizon would probably drop just as many calls as AT&T? The jist of this claim was that the dropped calls were mostly Apple’s fault, not AT&T’s so there was no way for Verizon to do any better. There were supposed to be bugs in Apple’s call software, or maybe hardware, that AT&T had taken the blame for, all these years.

I never believed this story for a minute. (And to their credit, neither did many people who were covering the iPhone story.) I made a note to wait a few months and blog about it, when the evidence was in, although I was sure I knew what the evidence would be. Here’s what I expected: Verizon besting AT&T in dropped calls.

Common sense argued that if Apple’s software was causing lots of dropped calls, they had plenty of time, and loads of incentive, to do something about it. I had only two questions about this story:
  • Who planted it?
  • Why were the news people so gullible about it?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Playlist for May 17, 2011, 2011 at 6 a.m. to 8:30, Music on WPRB princeton, 103.3 fm and WPRB.COM (streaming around the world):

This is the playlist for my radio program of May 17, 2011, 6:00 A.M..
My first such Classical Playlist (with an explanation) is here.

The actual list will get filled in as I broadcast, from 6:00 A.M.
Playlist for Tobias on WPRB, 103.3 FM and WPRB.COM, for May 17, 2011
Composer TitleEnsembleConductorSoloistsAlbum IDStarting time
Rachmaninov, Sergei Symphonic Dances for two pianos, Op. 45n/an/aEmanuel Ax (pno #2), Yefim Bronfman (pno #1)Sony SK 617676:03
Debussy, ClaudeEn Blanc et Noirn/an/aUrsula Oppens (pno #1), Jerome Lowenthal (piano #2)Cedille cdr 900006:37
Anweiler, AndrzejDiversions for two clarinetsChicago Clarinet Trion/aLarry Combs (cl) & Julie DeRoche (cl)Albany TROY12116:56
Saint-Saëns, CamillePiano Concerto #4 in c, Op. 44Orchestre de ParisSerge Baudo (cond)Aldo Ciccolini (pno)EMI 694437:06
Duparc, HenriSongs: L'invitation au Voyage (Baudelaire), Extase (lahor), La vie antérieure (Baudelaire)n/an/aSarah Walker (mezzo), Roger Vignoles (pno)Hyperion CDA 663237:36
Lansky, PaulComposition Project for SeniorsComputer-generatedn/an/aBridge 92107:54
Ginastera, AlbertoPopol Vuh: The Mayan Creation, Op.44BBC National Orchestra of WalesGisele Ben-Dorn/aNaxos 8.5709998:03

Monday, May 16, 2011

Locked Keys:

In 1994 I had a consulting job that required me to commute east, all across New Jersey, an hour each way every day. After an accident that totaled my then current car (a woman returning from her chemo appointment made an injudicious left turn), we got a brand new Honda Accord for me to commute in. The car was a few weeks old and I was coming home on a Friday afternoon. On Fridays, I always left early enough to get home well before the start of the Sabbath, at which time I could no longer drive. I was always hyper about making sure I got home early on Fridays.

I stopped halfway, at my favorite gas station, an indie place that sold off-brand gas at low prices. I pulled up at the pump, got out of the car and closed the door, locking my keys inside. The motor was still running.

That’s a nightmare scenario, except for one thing. The gas station employees were not the least bit worried. One of them reached up and felt along the low roof of the gas station office. He pulled out a long tool designed for one thing: to unlock card doors. He shoved it down between the driver’s seat window and the outside of the door, fished round a bit and .... he dropped it. The tool disappeared inside my car door. The motor was still running.

I stood there with my heart in my mouth while the gas station owner made a few phone calls. Soon he announced there was nothing to worry about. Fifteen minutes later, a guy drove up, looking very much like the same sort of foreigner as the gas station employees. He unlocked my car with a similar tool, got the other tool out of my door, teased us all, and drove off. I got home about thirty minutes later than expected, feeling very lucky.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Trade Beltran (the Mets):

Carlos Beltran recently hit three home runs in one game. He’s healthy and he’s batting well, a great asset to the Mets.

The Conventional Wisdom about the Mets is stark and simple. They are not good enough to win their division. They are not good enough to win the Wild Card spot in the playoffs. Teams in their situation trade off good players during the pennant race. In July, as the trading deadline approaches, some team that is in a pennant race will give up a lot for Beltran. The Mets are expected to wait for a summer auction and trade Beltran away to the most desperate bidder.

I disagree. Trade Beltran now! It’s too much to hope that he will play like this all the way through July; he's at risk to get injured again. The time to trade him is now.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

When you leave a phone message, remember: You are Acting!

When you leave a phone message, or when you record your own OGM, it's time to get dramatic. Emphasize, and be clear and to the point, or else you'll mumble the most important part, or even a digit.

It makes me so sad to hear a message, or an OGM, that just cannot be understood. I once needed to reach a doctor's emergency line. The emergency number played a message about how to call the doctor's weekend number. That number was just thrown away in a rapid soft voice at the end of the message, and I think I was lucky to be able to hear eight of the nine digits. I reached the doctor by calling almost all ten of the possible numbers, in the course of which I got to talk to some very nice people, but that wasn't important then.

If your message includes a phone number, speak it twice! It doesn't matter how clearly you enunciate your digits; what matters is that a moment of noise can obliterate one of them. Give your listener a second chance.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

My Wedding Ring is off my finger, and my skin is recuperating, but...

I hadn't really thought about it, but I have a nervous habit of rapping out interesting rhythms with my wedding ring. I tap it on staircase railings and lots of other reverberant surfaces. Currently, I'm not wearing it. I haven't lost the rapping habit, but it's really silly right now: I tap the side of my ring finger on hard surfaces, and nothing happens.

Playlist for May 10, 2011 , 2011 at 6 a.m., Music on WPRB Princeton, 103.3 fm and WPRB.COM (streaming around the world):

My first such Classical Playlist (with an explanation) is here.

The actual list will get filled in as I broadcast, from 6:00.
Playlist for Tobias on WPRB, 103.3 FM and WPRB.COM, for May 10, 2011
Composer TitleEnsembleConductorSoloistsAlbum IDStarting time
Asrael Symphony, Op. 27Suk, JosefRoyal Liverpool Philharmonic OrchestraLibor Pesek n/aVC 912216:04
Schumann, RobertLiederkreis, op. 39 (Eichendorff)n/an/aElisabeth Schwartzkopf (sopr), Geoffrey Parsons (pno)lp: angel 370437:10
Rachmaninov, Sergei Suite #1 for two pianos, op. 5, fantasie-tableauxn/an/aEmanuel Ax (pno), Yefim Bronfman (pno)Sony SK 61767~7:37
Ravel, MauriceConcerto for the Left Hand in DSaint Louis Symphony OrchestraLeonard SlatkinAlicia de Larrocha (pno)RCA BMG 609858:02