Monday, February 28, 2011

Playlist for March 1st, 2011 at 6 a.m., Music on WPRB princeton, 103.3 fm

Playlist for March 1st, 2011 at 6 a.m., Music on WPRB princeton, 103.3 fm (streaming around the world).
My first one (with an explanation) is here. (There was no show for me on Feb 22nd.)

The actual list will get filled in as I broadcast, Tuesday morning at 6 a.m. to 8:30.
Playlist for Tobias on WPRB, 103.3 FM and WPRB.COM, for Dec 21, 2010
Composer TitleOrchestraConductorSoloistsAlbum IDStarting time
Humperdinck, EngelbertKönigskinder: overture; intros to acts 2 & 3Bamberg SymphonyKarl Anton Rickenbachern/aVirgin 6285846:03
Stravinsky, IgorDuo Concertanten/an/aJennifer Frautschi (vln), Marta Aznavoorian (pno)Artek Ar 00066:28
Rimsky-Korsakov, NikolaiThe Invisible City of Kitezh (suite)Scottish National OrchestraNeeme Jaarvin/achan 8327/8/96:45:00
Mahler, Gustav Das Lied von der ErdeLos Angeles PhilharmonicEsa-Pekka SalonenPlacido Domingo (ten), Bo Skovhus (bar)Sony SK 606467:12
Schubert, FranzLieder: Suleika I (D. 720) & II (D. 717) {Words by Marianne von Willemer, not Goethe) ; Dass Sie Hier Gewesen {Words by Rückert), D. 775n/an/aArleen Auger (Sopr), Lambert Orkis (pno)Virgin classics 6285988:17

Net Neutrality: I’m for it, but...

Right now, I believe I am suffering from a lack of net neutrality. I can’t be sure, but I believe my Internet connection is being managed in an un-neutral way. I’ll tell you about that in my next post. First, I want to explain what I think about net neutrality:

I do not think the government, or any governing body, should make laws to regulate net neutrality. They will never get it right; there will be awful loopholes in any such law; and the law will be ten years out of date, causing awful damage, before it gets amended, to bring it almost up to date, with new loopholes.

Good network management, even the most benign, requires an internet provider to adjust priorities for the various streams it handles. That makes it really hard to define exactly what neutrality is.

The way to achieve a nearly neutral internet is to make sure that the internet providers do not have a conflict of interest over the data they are carrying. We’ve got it wrong in the US. Why shouldn’t Comcast try to crush Netflix, since Comcast has its own ways of delivering movies to us? Why should a company that delivers both cable TV and the internet, hobble its internet connections to make us use our TVs more, since TV costs a lot more than personal internet connections?

Legislate us away from these conflicts of interest, and then hope for the best.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Don’t buy tickets to the Mets?

There are lots of new rumors since I declared the (financial) baseball season open. First, without doubt, the MLB loaned a chunk of money to Fred Wilpon and the Mets. Now, on to raw speculation:

The MLB is the “bank of last resort.” Wilpon won’t be able to borrow from a real bank now.

The Mets had a cash flow problem, either when they made this loan, or when the made their last large bank loan.

With their interest payments and huge Mets payroll, Wilpon risks another cash flow problem in the near future.

Where can he get cash? Well, he can sell a chunk of the Mets, but that prospective sale seems not to be going well. He might sell some of his real estate empire...

Tickets! Ticket sales! That’s where he can get the cash he needs.

Only the rumor is, ticket sales are painfully below last year. And last year’s sales were way below the previous year. Do you want to buy tickets to see a team with only one solid starting pitcher?

Here’s the more serious question: Do you want to help Fred Wilpon keep the Mets? He needs cash. Do you want to see another decade of his ownership? If you do, this is the time to buy tickets.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Redesign the Power Grid!

A recent article on interface standards pointed out something that I really like: if you keep an interface stable, people can productively design new products and inventions to that interface. For example, in 1981 when IBM released the entire spec for its new PC, hardware and software developers changed everything in new products, but hewed to the IBM interface, creating a world of compatible invention.

The article that I was reading mentioned the American power grid as an example of stability that furthered invention and progress.

Oh, Yeah?

How many DC transformers do you own? Don’t forget to count the ones for your current gadgets, the ones you have forgotten to throw away, and the ones you are not sure what device they belong to. I’m sure that, in my lifetime, over forty of the gadgets I've bought came these. And I don’t buy that many gadgets. The stupendous cost of these 6 and 12 volt DC transformers, and their constant drain of electricity (we keep them plugged in, don’t we?), could all be eliminated by providing 12 or 24 volts of DC to every home.

Isn’t it way past time to redesign the electrical grid?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Spying on Not-Invented-Here

The Help Net Security website has a fascinating article about a common hole in security, in the business world: One in 10 IT pros have access to accounts from previous jobs.

You would think that when a person leaves a company, all of his or her access to that company’s computers would be removed. You might even think that all of a person’s access was controlled at one secure control point, so that a single action was all that was required to remove all of a person’s ability to connect to a previous company. Alas, it’s not that simple. An observation of Bruce Schneier seems to hold, instead: companies set up their projects with productivity in mind, not security. Security can slow things down a bit, and is often an afterthought.

I benefited from one of these loopholes in an amusing way. I was working at a company, developing software for a client. This development work was “on spec” because the client had no money to pay us until they floated a public offering. I worked closely with the client to identify needed software, and I was proud of my results.

After the client got their next round of funding, they brought in a new set of developers, a group whose experience was better suited than mine to their future needs. For a very short time, we all worked together while they set up their development environment. I proposed to give them a walkthrough of the features of my software so that they could decide what they might want to integrate into their future work. Politely but firmly, they made it clear that they were only interested in what they would write themselves. It would be a waste of their time to spend even one day on my work. I didn’t feel too awful about this, because I had been paid for my work, and I know that the “NIH” sentiment is very strong among programmers. The client severed all connections with me and I no longer had access to their developers or to their work.

Except for one thing.

When the client was setting up its development environment, it used an excellent tool for tracking bug reports. I was working with their people at this time, so my email account was added to the list of bug report recipients. I got to read all their bug reports.

I would say that 98% of these were either boring to me or incomprehensible, but the remaining 2% made my day. These were reports about unexpected problems they had to solve, that I had already solved in my software that it was not worth their time to know about. I’ll give you a taste:

In the client’s product, a modern UNIX system had to communicate with customer terminals that ran a very customized version of an older UNIX. UNIX systems store the date as the number of units since a reference date, say, midnight, January 1, 1964. In the client’s case, the two different UNIX systems used a different reference date, so that the same date “number” meant different a day and year in the two systems. My software had routinely adjusted date fields between the two systems, to allow for this. I was delighted to see the bug report about “Holy Cow, did you realize that the date fields are different on the two systems, and that it’s screwing us?”

It was a long time before I stopped enjoying those bug reports.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Is this a heavy Winter? (NJ)

Each winter, when - and if - snow falls, I keep track of how many consecutive days it lies on the ground. Consecutive snow for forty days is a heavy winter for me. This one has been a beaut: Continuous since December 26: 55 days so far.

My count is somewhat subjective. Eventually, the only snow left is the remnant of the ten-foot tall hunks that have been heaped up in parking lots. These are so man-made, that at some point, as they shrink, I ignore them.

The last inch of snow is currently retreating from our home, but there's real, untouched snow out there, and my count continues.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Jeopardy: Q & A and Watson:

When Watson played on Jeopardy, my wife wanted to see more of the word-play categories that Watson would likely be deficient in. There were few such challenges during the Watson match. I suspect that the Jeopardy producers played fair in this respect, picking categories at random from hundreds they had prepared in advance for their shows. But in real life, Watson-style systems will have to deal with vaguer questions than the majority that were used in the TV quiz game, so it’s a pity there weren’t more such challenges.

My favorite category that stumped Watson was the one where every answer was a key on your computer keyboard (shift, home, etc.). You know what? I want to see Watson play Wheel of Fortune, although it will have a gigantic advantage in that game, even if it ignores the confusing “category” hints.

Speaking of Jeopardy: if any of you are diehard fans, you may be distressed that I have persisted in calling the “answers” questions, and the “questions” answers. Well, I’m right, and the show is just silly in this respect. Contestants have to say “what is” or “who is” to preface their answers, but so what? Let me give you an example.

According to Jeopardy, this is the “question” that the contestants must guess after seeing the “answer”:

What is Elegance?

Suppose you asked "What is Elegance?" to a hundred people. Do you think that any of them would come up with the so-called Jeopardy “answer”? This is an actual item from the Watson contest:

A recent best seller by Muriel Barberry is called ‘This of the Hedgehog.’

I rest my case.

Jeopardy, Watson, and that damned Click!

Brad Rutter looked frustrated. Ken Jennings appeared very frustrated. It’s pretty clear that only one “game” decision enabled Watson to beat these two men: the timing of the click.

I’m very impressed by the ability of the Watson computer system to understand questions. I’m also impressed at the vast database of facts the computer has at its chippertips. But all of that computer power and “knowledge” is not what enabled Watson to win the TV game of Jeopardy.

The majority of the questions asked in these two Jeopardy games required straightforward factual knowledge. It was obvious, again and again, that all three contestants knew the answers to these questions. When they all knew, over and over, it was Watson that clicked first. If Watson had been required to click, oh, a tenth of a second later every time, I think that thousands more dollars would have gone to the human beings. Consequently, Watson’s victory means a great deal less. Now let me explain.

In Jeopardy, the contestants click a button when they want to answer a question. They are not allowed to speed-read the question and click at once. They have to wait until Alex Trebek has finished reading the question out loud. After that, according to John Markoff for the New York Times, a light flashes and then they can click.

Watson was fed the questions as text messages. (I’m sure Watson got no ‘advance info.’ Watson doubtless had to ‘read’ the questions while Ken and Brad were reading them.) If Watson found an answer to a question, it was permitted to click TEN MILLISECONDS after the light flashed. And that moment was too soon for its human opponents.

In the second game (on Wednesday) it was obvious that these two great players were learning to speed up their click reflexes. Perhaps if they played ten more games with Watson, they would gear up their reflexes almost fast enough. But this week, Watson had it all over them.

I understand there was some real agony, in preparing this challenge, about deciding how soon Watson would be allowed to click. Clearly, the decision was unfair. Giving Watson this edge was just great for IBM. I bet that very few humans can answer questions and then click a button within one hundredth of a second after some stimulus! I’d like to see an experimental psych trial back me up on this.

I’ll tell you what it seems like to me: The triumph of Watson could be worth millions to IBM. It could have been very, very,very, very important to Watson’s people to get that response time down to ten milliseconds. Who knows?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

John Markoff is wrong about Watson:

IBM’s Watson technology, now playing Jeopardy on TV, represents a marvelous advance in the ability of computer systems to analyze questions and figure out what is being requested. The commercial prospects for such programs are endless. John Markoff has a piece in today’s New York Times in which he makes a fascinating claim: that the IBM technology will throw large numbers of people, world-wide, out of work.

His claim could be correct. The opposite is possible as well, that this new kind of technology will create large numbers of jobs. But Markoff’s misapprehension comes to focus in a few paragraphs. Let’s take a look at these and see if we want to trust his judgement:

Virtually any job that now involves answering questions and conducting commercial transactions by telephone will soon be at risk. It is only necessary to consider how quickly A.T.M.’s displaced human bank tellers to have an idea of what could happen.
To be sure, anyone who has spent time waiting on hold for technical support, or trying to change an airline reservation, may welcome that day.

The way that A.T.M.’s deal with humans is much, much simpler than anything resembling the Watson system. The A.T.M.’s have automated a job that was begging to be automated, just as Craig’s list has databased an activity that was begging to be put into an online database. If there’s some human Q&A activity that’s begging to be computerized, perhaps a Watson-style system can do it, but technical support is not one of those activities.

The technology that is necessary to replace 95% of all tech support was invented in the mid-20th century; it’s called a Flow Chart. When you call tech reps for any technical device, they read a script that is in a flow chart form, jumping from question to question depending on your answers. Most of this tech support process could easily, and I mean EASILY be stored on web pages so that most people never had to talk to a human in tech support.

Those tech support humans are there for the few cases that escape the boundaries of the flow chart, and, more important, because we, the people, desire to talk to a human being when a device fails us. Watson will not replace those support people until it gets awfully good at conversing, just like us folks.

Playlist for Feb. 15, 2011 at 6 a.m., Music on WPRB Princeton

Playlist for Feb. 15, 2011 at 6 a.m., Music on WPRB princeton, 103.3 fm (streaming around the world): The first playlist in my blog (with an explanation) is here.


Playlist for Tobias on WPRB, 103.3 FM and WPRB.COM, for Feb 8, 2011
Composer TitleOrchestraConductorSoloistsAlbum IDStarting time
Debussy, ClaudePremiere Rhapsodie for clarinet & orchestraSlovak Radio Symphony Orchestra Kirk TrevorStoltzman (cl)Navona 6:03
Weill, KurtSymphony #2 (1933-1934)Bournemouth Symphony OrchestraMarin Alsopn/aNaxos 5574816:14
Bartok, BelaMikrokosmos, book 4. #102, Harmonics, etc (103, 104... 114)n/an/aJeno Jando (pno)Naxos 5578226:46
Holst, GustavThe Planets, IN ORDER!Berlin Philharmonicvon Karajann/aDG 400 0287:03
Schubert, Franz Lieder: Ganymed, D. 54, Geheimes, D. 719 , Auf dem See, D. 543n/an/aArleen Auger (Sopr), Lambert Orkis (pno)Virgin classics 6285987:58
Lansky, PaulNight Trafficn/an/an/aBridge BCD 90358:10
Ravel, MauriceUne Barque Sur L'OceanPhiladelphia OrchestraEugene Ormandyn/aEMI 551208:21

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Let me help you...

I have been cogitating over an impromptu one-liner that I heard weeks ago. It was wickedly funny, and Myq Kaplan, the fine, cerebral comedian who uttered it, had about one-half second to think it up. To set the table for this joke, I must first mention two other people. The first is Scott Sigler, a writer who began by self-publishing and podcasting, and then did tireless, imaginative publicity to get himself a successful career. He has a publisher now, and he is a New York times best selling author. One of the many things Sigler did, for friendship and/or publicity, was to visit the “Keith and the Girl” podcast. Keith Malley (the ‘Keith’ of that podcast) is currently selling a book he has written, an autobiography called: The Great American Novel. He was discussing his book on a podcast with Myq Kaplan. I’m quoting from memory, but I’m going to be pretty accurate.

Keith Malley: My pal Scott gave me a lot of help with my autobiography.

Myq Kaplan: Oh, did he live part of your life for you?

That is one funny line. I think it is also a wonderfully nasty line, but Keith did not take offense.

In Which I remember Bill Russell:

Bill Russell was an extraordinary basketball player: competitive, skilful, extremely smart, and one of the first players to dominate games on defense. In his years as the center for Boston, he had a macho rivalry with Wilt Chamberlain, a player who dominated the game almost as much with his huge bulk, height and shooting ability. Russell is about to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama. Russell has earned this reward for his actions both on and off the court. I would like to tell you my favorite memory of Bill Russell in a basketball game.

Philadelphia was playing Boston, and after a change of ball control, four Philadelphia players zoomed downcourt on a fast break, with only Bill Russell ahead of them, backpedaling furiously to defend. The middle player was Chamberlain. Striding long strides, he could break very fast, and he was a fine passer. He and his three teammates passed back and forth to Wilt, and Russell’s chances to decide who would shoot in order to try to block the shot seemed hopeless.

As they reached the top of the key, Russell suddenly looked completely confused. At that moment, Chamberlain decided to take the shot himself. If he had passed off at that moment, any of his three mates would have made a shot just under the basket, undefended. But a confused Russell was a wonderful opportunity. Chamberlain took his step before shooting and crashed into Russell.

Just when Chamberlain had decided to shoot, Russell became unconfused and stood stock still. He had suckered Chamberlain, and all the Philadelphia team got for their four-on-one break was a charging foul on Wilt.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

My Excellent Immune System:

I’ve always thought I had an excellent immune system. I’m an inveterate “toucher” of things, so my white cells have studied, along the way, just about all the dirty surfaces that mid-20th century Manhattan had to offer. In my youth, I got in some good barnyard time. Now there seems to be a chance for me to test how good my white cells are. Too bad this installation is happening in England, because it requires the assistance of an on-site phlebotomist. I hope Blood Wars will come to a continent near me, soon.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Black Humor versus Prudes:

I want to go on record. I saw the Groupon Tibetan Fish ad in the superbowl, and I loved it. It was my second favorite after the bold, gritty Chrysler ad for Detroit.

It was obvious that the Groupon ad was humorous, rather than insensitive. If you can't understand black humor, get out of the twentieth century!

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Some Conventions Must Die:

In last Sunday’s New York Times, there was a page with nine pictures and an accompanying story. A caption below the pictures attempted to describe who was in each picture. Perhaps you know how newspapers do this: counterclockwise from top left ...

A few of these pictures were arranged in what might fancifully be called a circle, but as for the rest, well, the caption got pretty complex. I lost all patience with their feeble who’s-which, and suddenly it struck me: perhaps, in this year 2011, it’s time for newspapers to admit that pictures are easy to edit! A number can be inserted into each picture, and then the caption can read 1: Joe Schmoo; 2: Joe and his older brother; 3: The elder Schmoos, etc...

Newspapers everywhere: Welcome to the late 20th century.

Playlist for Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2011 at 6 a.m., Music on WPRB princeton, 103.3 fm

Playlist for Feb. 8, 2011 at 6 a.m., Music on WPRB princeton, 103.3 fm (streaming around the world): The first playlist in my blog (with an explanation) is here.

The actual list will get filled in as I broadcast, Tuesday morning at 6 a.m. to 8:30.
Playlist for Tobias on WPRB, 103.3 FM and WPRB.COM, for Feb 8, 2011
Composer TitleOrchestraConductorSoloistsAlbum IDStarting time
Gershwin, GeorgePiano Concerto in FLondon Symphony OrchestraAndre PrevinAndre PrevinEMI 66943about 6:03 a.m. EST
Mahler, Gustav Symphony #2, 'Resurrection'New York Philharmonic, Westminster ChoirBruno WalterMaureen Forrester (alt), Emilia Cundari (sopr)Sony SM2K 644476:38
Schubert, Franz Lieder: Gretchen am spinnerade, D. 118; Heidenroslein D. 257; Rastlose Liebe, D. 183 (All Goethe)n/an/aArleen Auger (Sopr), Lambert Orkis (pno)Virgin classics 6285987:58
Dvořák, Antonín Slavonic Dances: Sousedska, op. 46 #6 Furiant, op. 46, #8New York PhilharmonicKurt Masurn/aTelDec 1012238:13
Honegger, ArturPacific 231Oslo Philharmonic OrchestraJansons (cond)n/aEMI 551228:22

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Slippery slpoe:

Whether you touch-type or hunt and peck, or you’ve developed your own handy way to bang out text, you’ve probably thought about how to make efficient corrections. Suppose, for example, that somewhere in your text, you wish to change the word pleasuring to desiring. The efficient way for many people is to click-select the whole word and retype it. But why?

Both words end in ‘ring.’ Why do we have to retype those letters? Why not just move the cursor before the word, hit the delete key a few times, and type ‘desi?’

If you ponder this silly problem, you’ll notice many cases like that when you edit text. It’s often more natural to type a different six letter word than it is to correct the two internal letters that could perfect your correction. Can you reorder the wrong letters in a mistyped word like ‘slpoe’ faster than you can delete it and type ‘slope?’

Experimental psychologists have examined some closely related issues. Pianists can play fistfuls of rapid notes much faster than their brains can issue commands to play specific notes. Our brains seem to be able to stack up long chains of commands to our muscles that we then carry out with amazing rapidity. They key to these long chains of commands is a kind of “chunking.” We can most easily stack chains of actions if they are familiar, practiced sequences. So it can be easier for your brain to stack the commands to type a whole word that you’ve typed before, than to stack the commands to correct an unusual mistake.

But there’s a middle ground, and I find it fascinating to explore. Let’s take that misspelling, ‘slpoe.’ As your hands reach for the mouse and the keyboard, you’ve got a moment to rehearse all the actions you are about to perform to make the correction. Planning them in advance enables your brain to stack them for satisfyingly faster execution. Give it a try.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

The Details of the Lap-Swimming Word Game:

No one twisted my arm, but I shall tell you how I count laps while I swim. My method is sufficiently variable that it won't become rote for a while. It’s relatively easy to maintain an accurate lap count. (I used to use a device, worn at belt-level, to count laps, but its battery wore out, and I have become more concerned with knowing exactly what count I’m up to, in order to pace myself.) I like my game, because it makes me scour my memory to try to find vocabulary.

The pool is 25 yards long, so I count groups of four laps (100 yard distances). In the first four laps, I think of a word beginning with ‘a.’ In the next four, ‘b.’ And so on.

In each four-lap group, the first vowel (ignoring the first letter, which may also be a vowel), varies on each lap. It is successively: ‘a’ ‘e’ ‘i’ and then either ‘o’ or ‘u.’

Additionally, I pick one letter for each swim and require that letter to appear in every word. If it’s an easy letter like ‘s,’ I try to find words containing two or three or even four of this letter. (For example: “assists.”) Now suppose that ‘v’ is my special letter. I might use these words to count laps:
Avarice, avenue, arriviste, avow; brave, breve, bivalve, bloviate...

When ‘q’ is the first letter, I ‘assume’ the ‘u,’ so my words might be: quaver, questive (ick), quiver, quo? (I can’t always think of a word.)

I also like to find very short words. If I’m desperate, I will use names and other proper nouns and even foreign words. After all, it’s my swim.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011


This blog entry is more or less about the jejunum, so please be patient while I set the stage.

When I swim, I count laps by playing a word game. The word game is, in a sense, ordered, so that I know how many laps I have swum by knowing what sort of word I’m looking for. I shall spare you the details of this game.

During one lap, I needed to find a word that began with lower-case ‘j.’ The first vowel in the word had to be an ‘e’ and the word had to contain, anywhere, at least one ‘c.’ I thought hard and found no such word. I suspected there must be dozens of them, and I would be embarrassed if I actually looked them up in a dictionary. So that’s what I did when I got home.

I used my good old 1966 Random House unabridged. (This dictionary is famous for specifying that the interior angles of a regular pentagon are 118 degrees.) I could have use the OED, but I wanted to find words I should have known, not words I never knew. There are lots of words beginning with ‘je,’ but I only noticed a single one that contained a ‘c.’ Amazing! This word was jejunectomy, the name for the operation in which a person who is jejune remains insipid, but has the jejunum removed from his or her small intestine. (The jejunum lies between the duodenum and the ileum. I had not known that.)

I feel much better now, because there’s a certain stress and pressure involved in swimming each twenty-five yard lap, and during that short time, I can be excused for not thinking of jejunectomy.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

This Geography Lesson is good for you:

A fast-talker named C. G. P. Grey has put together a delightful, informative video about the geographical entities that terms like "Britain" and "Empire" conjure up. (I learned of this video from I plan to watch this video several times, until I despair of remembering everything it's about. It's called The United Kindom (and a whole lot more) explained.