Monday, December 31, 2012

Spel Gud, or Els:

This morning I weighed 220.4 pounds.

My father was a lawyer who worked for a socially conscious organization, the American Jewish Congress. Much of his work involved combating prejudice. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, he fought against laws making it difficult for blacks to register to vote in the South, and sometimes argued to get an individual challenge overturned. Tests were administered to blacks who wished to register (that is now illegal). He enjoyed telling us about one man who was rejected due to “errors in spilling.”

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Burnah (slang):

This morning I weighed 220.8 pounds. I’m now entitled to imagine that I have dropped a 4-pound weight that I used to carry everywhere. It’s not surprising that I'm more active.

One of the pleasures of getting old is the ease with which one recovers the memories of youth. This morning, I recalled “burnah”, a slang word that may have died. (I can not find it on the Internet.) The word may have been local to my part of Nassau County, Long Island, NY, where I grew up. It might even have been coined by the one member of our childhood gang whose parents spoke German in the home. That boy certainly spoke “burnah” with relish.

The word’s two syllables were both accented, and both drawn out to taunt: burrrr-naaaaah. Those two syllables carried a wealth of meaning, more or less equivalent to this: Envy me, you poor, miserable suckers! Here are a few samples uses:

Did you hear that Jackie Robinson stole home yesterday? I was at the game, my dad took me. Burnah.

My new toy machine gun can kill all the cowboys and indians at once. Burnah.

For maximum effect, the word could be repeated, with a falling tone at the end: I don’t have to go to school to play basketball. I just got my own basket at home. Burnah! Burnah.

Every year, more new words enter the English language. I guess it won’t hurt to lose a few.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Tea: not so simple...

This morning, my scale claimed that I weighed 221.2 pounds.

Last night we enjoyed an all-you-can-eat buffet at a Chinese restaurant. I learned that my, shall we say, “diet to live” instincts do not run deep. Oh, eating and eating was such fun.

I always use chopsticks, and I always read the paper label before ripping it off. Chinese restaurants have had so many years to get the text right on these wrappers, that I no longer expect to be amused by their approximations of English. But I was surprised. Here’s a quote from my chopstick wrapper:

Please try your nice Chinese food with chopsticks the traditional and typical of Chinese glorious history.
And culture

This was a small restaurant and there were few diners. The staff consisted of a maitre d’ who doubled as cashier and waiter, and also took takeout orders on the phone. He did everything in a loud, resigned and friendly voice.

After we gave our order, I asked for tea. The man hurried to the kitchen, and then he yelled something that I never, ever, expected to hear at a Chinese restaurant:

“How do you make tea?”

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Chinese Restaurant Buffet:

This morning I weighed 221.2 pounds. Tonight I expect to eat at a Chinese restaurant that has an all-you-can-eat buffet. I expect the worst.

In the 1950's, the three miserable bat characters in the Pogo comic strip always carried a pack of cards, one of which said: Come to Meebles. All you can eat, $99.95 (that's about a $billion billion in today's money). It's all very well to make fun of all-you-can-eat restaurants, but they are lots of fun, especially for people who are not on a diet.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Amazon, did you have to delete many helpful book reviews?

I weighed 222.0 pounds this morning. My weight generally goes up after a day in which I drive for many hours. (I'm a very relaxed driver.) I counted my calories yesterday and did not expect this little bounce.

Amazon has apparently banned authors from reviewing books in their own genre, and many authors are angry, especially those who took the time to write dozens of reviews that have been deleted. I have a horse in this race, because, having written a fantasy novel, I can no longer review fantasy novels at Amazon.

I'm not quite sure whether Amazon looks at other websites to decide what an author's genre is, but if they do, I probably can't review self-help books either.

I have a better suggestion for Amazon: remove the star (*****) ratings, and let any reader write a review. Without stars, the reviews will speak for themselves.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

In Which I call upon Fox News to Carry on the great battle:

Fox News has continued to fight a war against the War Against Christmas. Recently, their efforts have gotten lame enough for the Doonesbury comic strip to make fun of them.

But a new front has opened up in the war against Christmas. I’m sure I need only expose it, to provide new meat for the commentators at Fox to get their teeth into. Let me explain:

I walked around town today, and of course most stores were closed. In their windows I saw a sign that I’m sure you saw as well. A sign that is an affront to decency. It said:

Sorry, we’re closed.
Can you imagine that? “Sorry”, on Christmas day? Here’s what those signs ought to say, if Christmas means anything:

Hey, everyone, we don’t have to work today, because it’s Christmas. We’re GLAD to be closed today. Glad, you hear me? Glad!

That’s the spirit. You won’t find that sign anywhere, although you should. Instead:
Sorry, we’re closed.

That’s the story, and I hope Fox will get right on it.

In the interest of full disclosure: This writer, who appreciates the way his fellow Americans enjoy the December 25th National Religious Winter Celebration, is Jewish. Happy Holidays!

PSEG in NJ: A failure to communicate.

I weighed 221 pounds this morning. Excellent.

The power went out last Friday (strong wind, heavy rain).

There are many things our power company could do to make us safer from power outages, and to restore power more quickly. These things cost money - probably a lot - and it’s unlikely that PSEG will be given rate rises to do them. But PSEG could do a much, much, better job of communication. I wrote about this issue before, but here are some observations:

1. The “outage map” at their website tells me only the estimated outages in my entire county. It should be more detailed, showing my town, the links that are without power, and their status. PSEG has that very data on their intranet, I’m sure. Share it with us!

2. PSEG’s website claims that we can get the best status info by following them on Twitter. I tried that, and saw dozens of messages like this: “Heckfire, call 800-555-5555. We’ve got a problem.” “@Loser255, we saw you reported your probem, and we’re getting right on it.” All these twitters say nothing about SCHEDULE and PLACE. They are useless.

3. I can call PSEG (800-350-pseg), and its computer uses my phone number to give me status about my area. At 10:45 this morning, the recorded message told me that their “investigation” will be complete by 10:28. Their computer system should avoid promising action to be done in the past! I had to wait to speak to a human to discover the (improved) current status.

PSEG, Comunicate!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Ironic, or not?

This morning, I weighed 222.0 pounds, and I intend to weigh less tomorrow. A person identified as “AS” Left a comment about my attempt to diet, after I revealed my age. Let me quote:
If you are [old], then why do you need to reduce weight? You should just sit in the easy chair, write good books like raven's gift and do blogging. Also, you should snack as much as you like and exercise only if you can. … you should take a well-deserved break as you must've done your share of work and exercise before.

My angry reaction was to rebut AS’s insinuations. Then it occurred to me that I’d been fooled by an ironic compliment. (I rather like it when I fall for someone else’s joke, as long as I don’t fall too far.) So first of all, thanks, AS for your comment (compliment?), which adds to my determination. And second, I’d like to rebut you as follows:

I refuse to be one of those old men who “have the right” to sit, snack and take it easy. I’ve seen their bodies in the men’s locker room, and I refuse to look like that! Not just for vanity. Those big round bellies and heavy, tremulous legs can’t be healthy.

I refuse to believe that only a certain amount of exercise is required in life. Among the matters my exercises attend to are: preserving my ability to lift a suitcase into the trunk of a car; improving my balance so that I won’t fall; and turning some of my fat into muscle. I’ll never play volleyball or touch football again, but old men need their muscles to work.

When I contemplate losing the next five pounds, I imagine that I have been carrying a five pound weight everywhere, and I shall at last be allowed to set it down. Ditto a ten pound weight. Just try carrying a ten pound weight around, and dream about NOT carrying it.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Best 7 Ways to avoid “Best of” Lists:

This morning I weighed 222.8 pounds. I think I’m poised to lose more weight this week.

The web is awash in “Best of” and “Worst of” lists. Magazines love them, too. Writers love them because they involve little writing effort. Select your list items, describe them, and you’re done, unless you must make that mini-Herculean effort of ordering your list from best to not-so-best. Readers love them, too. A “Best” list is easy to comprehend, requiring little effort to follow a sustained argument or analysis of kind.

In this blog entry, I’ve saved you, I hope, from two lists: the one that’s not here, and the one you didn’t read when you decided to read my blog.

“Best” lists are a mental crutch. Don’t get dependent on them.  

Saturday, December 22, 2012

10,000,000 Armed Guards to Protect us against GUNS:

National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre made an impassioned request for armed guards at every public school. Many sensible people are cutting his idea into little bits, but I’d like to add my own analysis.

Bruce Schneier has identified his type of response: LaPierre wants to spend a great deal of money to deal with the LAST disaster. But terrorists and crazed gunmen aren’t total idiots. If one target is protected, they’ll attack another. So let’s take LaPierre’s logic where it’s going:

Public schools will be protected with armed guards. So people with guns might attack private schools. Better put an armed guard at every one of their buildings.

Private schools will be protected with armed guards. So people with guns might attack colleges. Better put an armed guard at every one of their buildings

Colleges will be protected with armed guards. So people with guns might attack theater events. Better put many armed guards at every theater and concert hall.

Theater events will be protected with armed guards. So people with guns might attack AA meetings. Better put an armed guard at them. Etc. Etc. Etc. Etc. Etc. Etc. Etc. Etc. Etc. Etc. Etc. Etc. Etc. ...

Now hiring and arming all these guards seems to solve our unemployment problem. But where will the money come from, to buy their guns and pay them? When we have 10,000,000 armed guards protecting all our gatherings and schools and concerts and Christmas singalongs, we must notice that the work of these guards adds NOTHING to the national economy. The USA needs productivity, not people holding guns and standing around.

And: we will need a giant bureaucracy to screen applications for the armed guard jobs. There’s no way that every armed guard will be perfectly screened. A few, just a tiny few of those 10,000,000 armed guards might be the people we are guarding against.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Brian Boyko asks Microsoft to Recall Windows 8:

This morning I weighed 223.4 pounds.

Brian Boyko has produced a delightful, fun-filled, animated video about his difficulties in trying to use Windows 8. Brian is a techie, and his intention was to benchmark the new OS, just as he had previously benchmarked Vista, a MAC OS and Linux, doing some productive tasks.

Trying to use Windows 8, he hit sixteen tons of frustration. His video conveys his adventures quite amusingly, but in the process, he makes me feel that Windows 8's UI is pretty vile.

Other people who stufy man/machine interfaces have raised similar complaints. I strongly recommend his video to all of you who are willing to hear the f- word.

Bear in mind that millions of people may find their way through all of the issues Boyko (and other researchers) raise, get used to the darned new interface, and learn how to work effectively with it. I'm reminded of a story:

I attended a lecture by one of the first people to study human/computer interfaces in the office. He had studied one piece of equipment that enabled people to compose and print interestingly laid-out pages. Its user interface was absolute hell. He asked one woman how she felt about this machine, and she surprised him, saying, "I love it!"

"Why?" he asked.

"Because," she said, "whenever I manage to make it do what I want, I feel wonderful."

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Why so many Devices (2):

Today I weighed 223.6, which means I have bounced back up by 1.4 pounds. I think this is a temporary setback; stay tuned...

Two days ago I listed the devices I have that need regular recharging. Yesterday, I implied that some of them should have been replaced by general purpose computers. Let's look at what I think are my exceptions:

Why do I have a feature phone? I could have an iphone instead of the feature phone and the ipod. I think the answer is that the iphone, a general purpose computer (and its smartphone competitors), has not gotten generalized enough. Smartphones are relatively expensive as phones, and many smartphones do not make phone calls very well. Since I do not need all-the-time connectivity, it makes sense for me to have a device that easily makes reliable phone calls, plus the ipod touch. Within a few years, there will be more variety in smartphone pricing, and I will replace these two devices with one.

Why can't the ipod replace my Striiv? In principle I think it can. But the current ipod and iphone may not be good enough yet, at detecting when I take a step and when I climb stairs. That will change too, because better sensory devices in future phones will sell newer games. When smartphones have better sensing abilities, I will choose a "pedometer" app, and my smartphone will have replaced two other devices, the feature phone and the striiv. Oh, and a multitasking OS may be needed to enable "pedometer" apps to work. iOS may be the wrong OS here.

Why can't my iPod replace my old Nokia N800 pda? It can't. That device has a superb spreadsheet interface that is just right for managing a packing list. I have a very long packing list, and I charge the N800 up whenever I need to pack for a trip. My N800 survives because, in effect, it has a highly specialized user interface. (The rest of the N800's UI is disappointing, one reason why the device fell by the wayside.)

Please note that my iPod could attempt to replace my iMac's magic trackpad, but the trackpad holds its own by being inexpensive and very comfy to use.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Why so Many Devices (1)?

Over time, a rule has emerged about computer devices: the general purpose computer will replace special purpose devices.

For example: we have had calculators based on a computer chip since the 1970's. Today, very few people buy calculators, because they have calculator apps built in to their telephone or tablet or other portable general computer device.

In the late 1970's and early 1980's, word-processing machines were a big market. They were driven out of business by much poorer, and much, much less expensive programs that ran on IBM PCs.

Price plus convenience enables the general computer to wipe out many special purpose devices. But there are exceptions:

  1. Highly specialized user interface needs: there are plenty of genuine guitars out there. A computer keyboard, or perhaps a music keyboard, plus a general computer, can replace a guitar, but not very well. Your hands can do all sorts of things with a guitar that no one has learned to emulate with a real-time standard computer interface. And in a live performance, a guitar is a show-piece.

  1. Convenience: You might need quick access to your special device. You may not be happy, say, using your phone and switching contexts to your calculator app, every time you need it.
  2. Hardware specialization: There are situations where you require a device to have really unusual inputs and outputs. A violin; a mixing panel; an air traffic control seat.

Highly specialized needs prevent a general purpose computer from swallowing up a specialized device. Now, why do I have so many rechargeable, mostly computerized, devices? (See yesterday's blog post for the list, and tomorrow's post for the answer.)

Monday, December 17, 2012

Recharging as a way of life:

This morning I (again) weighed 222.2 pounds. Not bad.

I've been thinking about all the devices that I must often recharge:
  • My feature phone
  • My iPod touch
  • My iPad
  • My Striiv (superb super pedometer)
And less often:
  • My Water Pik
  • My razor
  • My magic trackpad
  • My emergency radio, a newly received gift
And before each trip, because it manages my packing list so well:
  • My old Nokia N800 PDA.

Fortunately, my watch runs a few years on a replaceable battery.

I'm sure I shall have to update this entry when I remember the other device or two. Tomorrow I shall riff on a related topic: why so many devices?

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Let's Treat the Second Amendment like the First Amendment:

This morning I weighed 222.2 pounds. Apparently I really am dieting. I'm hungry, I still eat too much sometimes, but things are getting better. (I started dieting two weeks ago, at 225.)

Now I would like to turn to a serious topic. Here are the first two amendments to our constitution:
Amendment 1
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or
prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or
of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition
the Government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment 2
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the
right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Note that the first amendment says “no law” regarding freedom of speech. But we have laws that regulate speech. In fact, we have hundreds. We may have started with the observation that it should be illegal to shout “Fire” in a crowded theater.

Laws regarding what this amendment says shall be “no law” have multiplied. Today we have an extreme case: the Patriot Act makes it legal to charge a person with a crime and forbid them from discussing the charge with anyone, except “in person” with their lawyer (not by email or phone, etc.). Many of the laws restricting free speech make common sense. Some seemed good at the time. They are there by the hundreds.

The second amendment does not specify “no law” regarding the bearing of arms, but says those rights must not be infringed. Common sense has eaten into this amendment as well. For example, our rights to bear a machine gun on a passenger airplane have been sensibly infringed.

Here's my plea: why can't we turn common sense loose on the second amendment as much as we've done to the first? Just as “no law” means “lots of law”, let “shall not be infringed” mean “shall be sensibly infringed”.

Bring it on.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Guns don't kill people; People kill people; much, much too easily.

I have tried to imagine suitable punishments for a grownup who murders dozens of little children. Sadly, I can't imagine a civilized society utilizing any of them.

I weighed 222.4 pounds yesterday (good) and, after attending a party last night, 223 pounds this morning (not so good). And here comes another challenging weekend. My goal is to weigh no more than 223 on Monday...

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Half a notch on my belt:

This morning I weighed 222.8 pounds. I'm VERY hungry and struggling to resist many urges to snack. One sign of my diet: this morning I pulled my belt in one extra half-notch. Now what's a half-notch on a belt? I'll explain.

I've been wearing my belt with the prong stuck in the third hole from the end. The fourth hole was too tight. But this third hole was too loose, and sometimes I had to hitch my pants up. I had a solution for this, but I hated to do it when my belt looked so nice: I thought about using the leather-punch in my Swiss Army knife to add a hole between the third and fourth holes; that would have been just right. But I hate to add an amateurish belt hole when the belt looks so nice.

This morning I easily put the prong into the fourth hole. Weight-loss has to be a factor here. One can hope.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

“New low-cost appliance … How it Works:”

This morning I weighed 223.6 pounds.

The full-page ad for the heater that I wrote about in the last two days has a paragraph titled: How it Works.

Note to would-be ad-copy writers: We learn from this example that the last thing you want to do in such a paragraph is to describe how the unit works. There are no equations, no descriptions of actual technology. If your mind is half awake, you might read this copy and think the device has been explained. Here is some text from this para:

“… takes care of all the cold spots. In fact, it actually produces bone-soothing heat.”
“... saves you money based on a U. S. average that says it uses only about 9 cents of energy an hour on the standard setting.”

I guess we're tired of hearing about this product, so I'll change the subject. Again, who knows? The heater could be wonderful; I know nothing about it. I just feel I've gotten to know their ad.

Monday, December 10, 2012

“New low-cost appliance … no doubt:”

This morning I weighed 224 pounds. After a week of dieting, perhaps I've lost one pound. That's okay, considering that I survived a dinner party last night; I didn't pig out.

The product I mentioned yesterday – I won't link to it – calls itself a modern, high-tech miracle heater. For some reason, the ad, in my opinion, suggests that this heater is an Amish invention. There is a picture of two Amish people carrying one, and the caption of that picture calls it the “Amish Miracle Heater.”

To me, the Amish people stand for a life-style that tries to restrict the use of modern technology. I imagine the Amish people taking time out from their life-style to make brilliant inventions based on their own preferred technology, not on modern high-tech technology.

I would not expect Amish people to invent and build a heater that has a micro-furnace “from the Coast of China”. (China has an awful lot of coast. WHERE in the coast of China?) I would not expect Amish people to invent and build a heater that has Hybrid-Whatsit technology.

Nonetheless, for many years I have seen ads that link the Amish to amazing heaters or furnaces. People write ads like this because they WORK. I can't imagine why, but this one must also work.
If you're curious: somewhere in this full ad, the involvement of the Amish is made explicit: Amish craftsmen build a cabinet of real wood to make each unit look like a sleek fireplace, and all that we buyers have to do is: plug it in. Perhaps the Amish are more involved in the heater than that, but I think the ad doesn't say so.

Please note: for all I know, this heater is a wonderful product. I'm just commenting on the wording of the ad. And I haven't even gotten to the paragraph titled: “How it Works”.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

“New low-cost appliance that helps slash heat bills:”

I weighed 223.8 this morning. Not as bad as I feared.

My title (above) is part of a headline ad from one of our newspapers. It's full-page, with several pics and lots of small-print text. The headline of this ad fascinates me. The entire ad is full of text that tries to make you think “A!” while only promising “(something related to A)”. The headline, I think, is an example of what I mean. It doesn't say that this product will slash your heating bills. It merely suggests that if you have already discovered a way to slash your heat bills, their product will help.

If I had found a way to slash our heating bills, I would be writing about that, instead of blogging this blog.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Diets … a bad day:

I don't weigh myself on Saturday mornings.

Today's diet did not go well. Facing a smorgasbord of treats, dainties, deserts and delights, I forgot, for many minutes, that I was dieting. I can't shout, “How could I do that?” because I've often done it before. In order to gird my loins against snacking every calorie-laden temptation, I gave myself a list to memorize. This is what to expect if I just keep on eating:

  • Diabetes
  • Foul taste in mouth hours later
  • Weight gain
  • Bad digestion
  • Poor sleeping
  • Tiredness, exhaustion, shortness of breath
  • Old-man-breasts, and
  • something too disgusting to mention.

I skipped dinner in hopes of minimizing the damage. Tomorrow I'm attending a dinner party. Monday morning, I just want my weight to be lower than when the diet began last Monday: less than 225.

Tomorrow I expect to blog about something that ought not, I think, be about the Amish.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Color to Grayscale (4); a Design Folly:

This morning I weighed 223.4 pounds. Weekends are difficult for me, filled with tempting treats. And I must attend a dinner party on Sunday. Good luck to me...

In the second installment of this story, I mentioned that in order to design our software changes, we had to agonize about whether our CRT displays or the operator workstations were more important in our system. Such distinctions are likely to be meaningless to users of the finished product, but a wrong decision in design can make the software much harder to write and debug. I faced a similar situation – this time, a horror story – 25 years later.

I was working on software for a TV Set Top Box, one of the first commercial ones to support digital TV channels. The base of the software had been written before I arrived. I and my co-developers only needed to make some changes newly requested by the customer and swat a few hundred bugs.

The original software design assumed that the tuning frequency of a channel defined its nature. (Over-the-air and cable channels, which can be digital, still have to be tuned to, in order to receive the channel's video and data.) If the software knew the frequency of a channel, everything else about it could be inferred, such as its channel number and its broadcaster (e.g. ABC or CBS).

There were many, many layers and separate units in the software to handle many necessary functions that might not directly concern the TV viewer. We were under great pressure to finish the software and get paid, and it was with horror that I discovered the major design error: the overall software should have assumed that the Broadcaster, not the channel frequency, was the primary identifier of a channel. I shall explain why, and you won't need to know about software to understand.

HDTV standards allow a channel to specify what channel it “really is”. For example, the analog frequency that we might use to capture channel 2 (whether over the air or by cable), might specify that it is really channel 42, broadcasting Bravo. And a few hours later, the frequency for channel 66 might take over, specifying that now IT is really channel 42, broadcasting Bravo. Shifts like this take place “under the cover” within the software. The viewer will tune to channel 42 at all times to see Bravo.

In our software, what had seemed like a straightforward design became a mess. For example, suppose the viewer wants to record a program on Bravo at midnight. Our original software assumed that it could schedule this request at once, knowing how to tune the STB at midnight to see Bravo. But now, we knew that our software actually had to figure out, at midnight, where Bravo was, before tuning to it. There were hundreds of cases like this.

The software cried out to be redesigned, so that the broadcast channel would be the unique identifier for every tuning action. You can rarely convince anyone that redesign is the fastest way to finish a software project, so instead we patched and patched our logic until, miracle of miracles, it worked.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Color to Grayscale (3):

This morning I weighed 223.6 pounds. I think my diet is starting to work.

Yesterday I mentioned the TV studio video switch that our customer wanted for his process control system, to enable any operator to see what was on any color CRT from any workstation. For some reason, two of the CRTs had to be grayscale, not color. So we agreed to provide hardware to convert color video to grayscale for these two CRTs.

My company always did fixed-bid work. Each contract we took on had one price without any escape clauses. We had to calculate costs in advance, very, very carefully. We usually worked with one particular company to provide any special video needs, and we asked them to design the color-to-grayscale hardware. They estimated $20,000 (which might be about $100,000 in today's money) and we took that cost into account in our fixed bid. This particular contract was harder to implement than anticipated, and that $20,000 estimate stuck in our minds like a sore thumb, especially since the subcontractor, a very busy small company, seemed not to be working on it.

We pressed for status, for preliminary designs, and … nothing.

One day, shortly before we went into final testing, one of the senior guys from this subcontractor showed up with a metal box, about the size of a deck of cards. It was open on one side so we could see its innards. It had three video connectors for the R/G/B inputs and one connector for the grayscale output. Inside the box were a few wires and a few resistors. It worked perfectly.

When I proudly showed our director that the grayscale problem was solved, he exploded. “They charged us $20,000 for THAT???”

He demanded an explanation from the subcontractor's president. The guy mildly said, “You know what this fixed bid business is like. Sometimes you lose money, sometimes you make more than you expect. When we made our estimate, we thought the video converter was going to be expensive to develop.”

“I'm not paying $20,000 for THAT!” my director shouted. Eventually, I think we compromised for $5,000, which was still a great overpayment.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Color to Grayscale (2):

This morning I weighed 224.6 pounds. (My pretty darned accurate scale reports weight to fifths of a pound.)

Yesterday I spoke about the scary risks of developing software on punch cards. I'm thinking about one specific contract my company undertook. Briefly, our typical system offered the customer a number of seats that operators could sit at to issue commands and watch factory status on a CRT. Our typical system sensed hundreds of inputs and manipulated hundreds of control outputs to help manage a factory process.

This particular customer wanted our standard system, but with a switch: a video switch that would enable each of 16 operators, anywhere in the plant, to see what was on any of the 16 CRTs. This was a color system, and they had specific TV studio hardware in mind to do the video switching.
We developed this system, but at the start of the design process, we agonized over one detail for a whole week. We knew this issue would not be noticeable to the customer, but it would have an enormous affect on our software:

Were we developing a system with 16 CRTs, each displaying informative output, that 16 operators could connect to? Or were we developing a system with 16 operator workstations, each of which could see any CRT display they wanted to see?

This question was important because our pre-existing software assumed that each operator workstation and its CRT had specific capabilities that were designed for each operator. In order to develop our new system, we were going to separate each workstation's data and capabilities from its display capabilities. And in the process, we would have to decide, as Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty said, Who was Master? The operator controls, or the critical displays?

Eventually we decided that our new system would have 16 workstations that could see any CRT. And I think we made the right decision, because those little surprises (in terms of work order changes and unexpected clarifications from the customer) never threw us.

Tomorrow I will talk about one small feature of this project that we paid a subcontractor $20,000 to develop (that's in 1975 dollars); and how upset we were at the price, when the developer delivered it in one day.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Color to Grayscale (1):

I weighed 225 pounds (again) this morning.

In the 1970's I worked at a company that sold monitor/alert/control systems to companies that wanted, for the first time, to use computers to control their factory processes. Our software consisted of thousands of punch cards, each containing one line of code. What would happen if such cards got out of order?

The software wouldn't work, that's what would happen. I worried about that because cards can be dropped from time to time, or just mislaid. And then getting them back into order would be a frustrating, time-consuming process.

There was a well-known way to keep the cards in order: place a sequence number in the rightmost columns of each card. When the cards were in order, the sequence numbers would count up, e.g., like this:
… and so on.

Putting sequence numbers in the cards was a nuisance in itself, and no programmer wanted to waste time doing it. Suppose I needed to add a card to an existing card-batch like this:
That's very little typing. Would I also look at the two cards I needed to place before and after this new card, figure out the sequence number of this card, and space all the way to the right margin to insert the number? Not likely. And suppose I wanted to insert a card between 00001022 and 00001023? There's no number between those two sequence numbers! I would have to make copies of a bunch of cards with new, more widely-spaced numbers, in order to make my new card fit. There was a machine to help me automate that process, but hey, we had to fix a bug in a hurry! So most of our cards had no sequence numbers.
My concerns – as a manager – were that cards might be dropped, or that a disaffected employee who expected to be fired would reorder some of the cards. (I think that never happened.) Much later I discovered a more realistic concern: that one programmer who stayed late into the night to help us meet our deadlines would sprinkle a few cards into the wrong drawers when he was high, very high, on Marijuana.
Punch cards, what a horror. But we made good money from that software system, and I have two amusing stories to tell you, in the next few days.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Diets, Diets, ....

This morning, I weighed 225 lbs.

In my life there have been two successful diets, in the sense that I took some weight off and kept it off for over a year. The first: I convinced myself that I could have a heart attack if I got any heavier. There was no medical evidence to suggest such a thing, but I feared heart attacks, and that worked.

The second: I took my doctor's advice to heart, and I determined to eat a low-starch diet. The cornerstone of that diet was a breakfast of fried veggies with protein. It worked.

I want to get back onto diet #2. I believe I have the fulcrum to shove me onto it. It is about as strange a reason for dieting as I can imagine:

At the fitness center where I swim, I saw a remarkable sight in the men's locker room. I am bursting to tell someone about it. I want to tell all of you about it. It's kind of gross, but I think we can all enjoy envisioning it.

Unfortunately, I know that if I told anyone, I would feel shame. Terrible shame. I believe I need to lose about ten pounds to be able to tell this story without shame. (When I'm able to tell it, you'll understand why.) So I shall blog my ongoing weight, along with, I hope, some interesting anecdotes to feed your own appetites. And perhaps three months from now, I'll tell you what I saw in the locker room.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Fox News, Tops in Entertainment:

I would never dream of getting my news from the Fox News TV channel, so it never occurred to me to watch them on election night (2012). I wish I had at least recorded them for later playback, because apparently, as an Obama supporter, I missed some treats. If you are in the same category, all is not lost, because:

(1) You can read about it:

DavidFolenflik's chronicles at NPR.

Andrew O'Hehir tells all at Salon.

(2) You can even watch:

Karl Rove and the Fox Diagnosticians (excerpted, I believe).

SarahPalin's haircut, parody of Tina Fey.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Screw You, CNN iPad App!

I wouldn't mind watching video from CNN live on my iPad tonight, while the election returns come in. I installed the CNN election app. I was prepared for it to be a bit bumpy. After all, it's not easy to debug an election-night application in advance, when there is no election. Still I'm pissed by how this app behaved.

The puff-wording for this app merely implied that anyone could watch CNN live. And when I opened the app, a popup box said I should simply tap “CNN live” to see the video. Just one problem: the words “CNN Live” were nowhere on the screen.

It turns out that in order to see those words, I had to make the main screen slide to the right, exposing a column of options including those fateful words. And how did I make the main screen slide to the right? By fortuitiously sliding my finger DOWN the screen.

When I tapped “CNN live”, I got the “which is your video provider?” screen. Okay, so CNN's promise was a little less universal than they suggested. Fortunately, I have an approved provider: Verizon. Next, the CNN app asked me to log in to Verizon by providing my ID and password. Fine; other apps have done this to me before.

CNN provided an impossibly tiny pair of lines that I had to select, in order to type my data. By mistake I tapped “cancel” when I tried to tap “password”, and the app returned to the main screen.

I started over, eventually exposing the same ID/password screen. I had realized what I had done wrong; I had not used the universal iPad gesture to expand this screen so that I could reliably tap on it. I put two fingers on the screen and spread them.

The CNN screen acted like a tight rubber band. It refused to stay expanded so that I could tap it. But finally I entered my ID and tapped password. The app then crashed.

I started over, but now the app said that it could not reach its server. I deleted the app from memory and started the whole business again. But the app crashed, again, when I tried to see the ID/password screen.

CNN, the heck with you. I have downloaded the New York Times app.

I will never play Monopoly again:

The man credited with inventing the Monopoly game might have taken (and modified) it from its original creators, who used the game as part of their socialist land-reformer movement. Cory Doctorow (at BoingBoing) points to the details, showing a beautiful picture of a different version of the game, here. This other board has familiar squares for Luxury, Jail, Railroads, etc. Its place names seem very NYC to me, quite different from the Atlantic City flavor of the commercial version.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Lumbar Roll...

For years – as my doctor advised – I carried one of these around and propped it against my back when I sat. The roll tends to nudge your spine into a better curve, eliminating back pain. Most people do not know what it is, and of course they ask. That's what this blog entry is about.

People often asked me, “What is that?” Or, “What do you call that?” They were always politely interested in my answer, but I'm sure none of them ever expressed a desire to buy one for themselves.

Suppose you do carry a lumbar roll and someone asks you this less common question: “What do you have in there?” In my limited experience, that person is likely to be seriously paranoid. (I've always felt that my lumbar roll not only improved my spine, but also helped me to identify psychotics.)

Only once did I encounter someone who knew what it was. On my second day of carrying it, I visited Manhattan and took a subway ride. And of course I forgot that I had propped the roll against my back (I had been fortunate to get a seat in the subway car). When I got up to leave, the man next to me picked it up, waved it and shouted, “You forgot your lumbar roll!”

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Do you care about the Jet's Safety against the Patriots? (2012)

If you care about the safety that resulted from Sanchez's failure to handoff to Shonn Greene, I will tell you exactly what happened. The announcers, during the game, misanalyzed this play badly, and I can't bear to let their explanation stand.

The ball fell loose when Sanchez tried to hand it off to Greene. But Sanchez did not mishandle the ball.

NFL handoffs are carefully planned. The quarterback extends his hand to give the ball to the runner at a specific spot, at a specific moment. It was obvious to everyone that this play was messed up by the defensive player Wilberforce, who bulled his way into the Jets' backfield. In fact, if you look at the replays, you will see that Wilberforce, and the Jet trying to block him,  were standing exactly where Greene was going, to receive the handoff. Greene could not bear to run into these two men; if he had, there would probably have been a fumble anyway. You can see Greene change direction, darting just a little closer to Sanchez. He was aiming for daylight, to the right of the Jets blocker. Had he been able to run there, he might have gotten away from Wilberforce.

However, Greene's change of direction meant that he was closer to Sanchez than expected. Sanchez was reaching past him, and a fumble resulted.

I would like to have a quarterback who could think incredibly fast in these situations. Sanchez should not have handed the ball off at all. And perhaps Greene should have done something else, as well. But you can credit Wilberforce for this fumble, by occupying the spot at which the handoff was to occur.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Laundry Hamper does not lie:

In our home, it's my responsibility to clean the clothes that go into our washer/dryer machines. Sometimes we have laundering emergencies, but usually I know it's time to do laundries when the laundry hamper is full.

I'm always surprised when the laundry hamper looks full. "It's not time to do laundry yet," I say. "We must have plenty of clean clothes."

But I do what I know I must: I take everything out of the hamper and sort it into the piles that must be washed separately. I look at those piles and at last, every time, I acknowledge the obvious:

The laundry hamper does not lie.

By the way, if a never-ending stream of laundry depresses you because you can never "finish" it, or - similarly - if there are always dirty dishes waiting to be washed, garbage to take out, etc.: take hope from an idea I have blogged about before. These never-ending streams are like oil pipelines. Your job is to keep them flowing, not to let them clog. You wouldn't dream of finishing the work of a pipeline, would you? 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Multitasking (not):

I settled down at my iMac to do some serious writing. And then I almost got up to get my iPad. I'm playing several Words-with-Friends games, and also another game where, from time to time, I get notifications when I can perform decisive actions. I thought it would be nice to have the iPad beside me, notifying me when it was time to interrupt my writing and play my games.

WHY WOULD I WANT TO DO THAT? Why would I want to make sure my train of thought is interrupted time and again when I'm trying to concentrate?

I left the iPad in another room.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

My Ears Played a Wonderful Trick on Me:

My ears, or perhaps the part of my brain that tries to make sense of what my ears hear, played a trick on me this evening. I turned my car radio on just in time to hear the end of a baseball inning. It was a playoff game, and the Yankee pitcher had worked out of a jam. The announcer, rather excited, said, “Men on second and third and none out, and Voldmort didn't score.”

(I should mention that I've always assumed the 't' at the end of Voldemort is silent.)

Voldemort, Baltimore. Baltimore, Voldemort. I definitely will not root for Voldemort.

By the way, apologies for the long silence.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Everything Wrong with Computers Epitomized in a Screenshot:

The title of this blog entry is copied from an item in John C. Dvorak's blog. The screenshot shows the sort of info that modern computers on the web can so easily collect. It's a list of "classical artists", a loose association of performing nouns associated with classical music. And it's not just names. There's a picture to the left of each title. Take a look at the pic of Antonin Dvorak. Oops. It's John C. Right here!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Programmable Wall Switch:

Have you ever wished you could control a wall switch with an automatic timer? Timers that plug into A/C outlets are easy to buy, but what about those wall switches?

A company that specializes in inventions for religious Jews has announced the answer to this problem, and their answer is not just for Jews. Please note, I haven't tried it yet, but it looks exciting. You screw their intelligent timer over your wall toggle switch, and you program it for several Off and On times. (It also has a random timer.) It is battery operated, and at the designated times, a mechanical device flips the switch up or down.

The timer can be preordered (estimated ship date: end of September) for $29.95 plus $6.80 shipping, per switch. Check it out here.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Thanks, Amex. But, Gee, no thanks. I think...

I recently had to change my American Express number. And then I had to cogitate and knock my head around to try to remember all the companies that needed my number, to could charge periodically. I missed at least one, and I was embarrassed when they called me.

A week later, I got an email from American Express. In it, they listed all the companies I had bought anything from with any regularity. Might I need to contact some of these, they asked, to update my Amex number?

They cast a wide net. I made only three purchases in the last eight years from one of the companies they suggested. Their "reminder" email is certainly a good idea, and I'm sure it helps many people.


There's a security issue here. Email is not particularly secure. I think it's possible that someone might be able to get access to the email that Amex sent me. But the purchases I made at the companies they listed were all very secure. Only those companies, Amex, and I, know where I made these repetitive purchases.

If someone gets a look at my buying history, I don't think it will cause a problem. I'm more than ready to admit, for example, that I buy the World's Softest Socks. But some people reasonably need to keep their purchase history secret, and Amex's helpful email, in my opinion, adds a tiny risk to lifting that secrecy. I don't think Amex should send emails like this, unless we ask for them. I would be happier if they had just sent me an email offering to send me this list of purchases. What do you think?

Shelby Lyman Column with a fascinating position:

I come to praise Shelby Lyman today. His Sunday column for September 9, 2012 features a position after black's 17th move in the game Victor Mikhalevski versus Robert Gardner, 2012.  (Click through here to find that position, or to play over the entire game. You may have to enable a plugin.)

The problem is easy to solve. What's interesting is the position. White's Queen, Rook and Knight are en prise, and so is black's Queen. What was black's last move that brought us to this position? And for that matter, what was White's 17th move? It's not easy to figure these out. (Hint: black's position was already desperate.)

Sadly, the problem has two (trivially different) solutions. This is a rare game in which no one resigned, and Gardner allowed Mikhalevski to checkmate him. The actual moves of the game are the other solution, not the one Lyman gives.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Another use for MLB.COM:

Major league baseball has a pretty cool website for following all of the major league baseball games. I use the iPad app, and I have discovered a pleasing use for it.

While each game is in progress, MLB saves short video clips of game highlights. Most of these, for me, are boring, unless I am rooting for the team involved. Who wants to watch yet another slugger hit a home run?

However, many of these video highlights are spectacular catches and amazing defensive plays. After the day's games are over, I like to go through the entire day's schedule, watching great defensive video clips on my full screen.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

My iPad, thanks to Vince Lombardi:

This is the sort of story one just shouldn't tell. It begs bad luck. But it's so interesting, I shall tell it to you anyway. Someday my iPad may slip out of my hands and crash to a smash on the floor. But that has never happened, and I owe my good fortune to the famous coach of the Green Bay Packer football team, Vince Lombardi. I shall explain.

In one of his team's great years, Green Bay had a rather young halfback who ran the ball well but tended to fumble it. I'll call him Fred. After yet another fumble in an early season game, it looked like Fred's goose was cooked. The reporters gathered round to get the juicy story after the Monday team meeting. Would Fred be benched? Fired?

Not at all. At the team meeting, Lombardi handed Fred a football. “Hold on to this,” he said. “All the time. When you're eating. When you're sleeping. When you walk around. Don't let go of this football, all week.”

The reporters enjoyed following Fred around. He clung to that football for dear life. And for the rest of the season, he rarely fumbled. Lombardi had found the cure.

When I got my iPad, the first thing that impressed me about it was how smooth and slip-slidey it felt. I had to learn to hold on to it! Remembering Lombardi and Fred, I resolved to carry my iPad a lot, and rarely let go of it, until it felt like an extension of my hands.

So far, so good.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

I like to read Neil Genzlinger:

I like to read Neil Genzlinger's columns in the New York Times. Currently he's a TV critic, but he writes well on many subjects, and some of his columns take a wild, original idea and spin it out delightfully. To whet your appetite, please check out his current column on DogTV. Genzlinger wondered how other species would react to this channel that's intended for dogs. Would they react differently? Read on to discover his findings.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Samsung vs. Apple vs. the Rest of Us:

I can't bear it. I'm going batty listing to Leo Laport's TWIT show (This Week in Tech) #368. Leo, Adam Curry, Fr. Robert Ballecer and Nilay Patel discuss the Samsung vs.Apple lawsuit, which Samsung lost (so far). I think it was Patel who summed up more or less as follows: Samsung tried to copy Apple's product. Apple made a great product. Samsung's job is not to copy Apple. Samsung's job is to make a different great product.

So let's talk about pianos. Steinway makes a great product. The job of other piano companies must be to make pianos that are distinctly different, not to copy Steinway. 59 keys perhaps instead of 88; white keys only, perhaps. Oval keys, not rectangular. Keys that lift up instead of pressing down. Six pedals instead of three, with entirely different functions.


The piano is a great product, and great pianists are wonderful because they use competing products that share very similar user interfaces. The various piano companies have to innovate under the hood unless they license each other's patents, but the user experience is much the same. And that's great for pianists.

And let's discuss Microsoft Windows. Please imagine that when Microsoft released Windows 95, they licensed the right to their user interface to one manufacturer, Dell perhaps, and all the other companies had to develop some other great, very different-looking product in order to compete. What an awful nightmare! Microsoft did the opposite, standardizing their user interface and encouraging all hardware and software Windows companies to stay with their standards. The resulting consistency was wonderful for us all,

It's terrible that Apple's brilliant iPhone and iPad GUIs are not standards that other companies can be encouraged to follow, for the benefit of all of us. (I know that any company can pay a small fortune to license these GUI rights from Apple; that's not the same thing.)

Leo and his TWIT friends have it wrong. It's time for Apple to follow Bill Gate's insight that consistent GUIs are great for customers. And it's time to admit that the Samsung vs. Apple lawsuit is just an example of how hard cases make bad law.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

I was a political DJ today:

When I create my classical music shows on WPRB, I try to be apolitical. I know my listeners want to hear music, not political opinions they may not share. But today, as the Republican Presidential Convention kicks off, I completely lost it. And I'm not very repentant. Here's what happened.

At 8 a.m., as required, I gave the rather blah weather report for the region near Princeton, NJ. And then I said, "But that's not the weather report you want to hear, is it? Here's the report for New Orleans."

I launched into today's and tomorrow's weather there, noting the rising predicted wind speeds (up into the sixties). I could not keep the glee out of my voice. The best I could do was not to say what I was thinking, which is this:

Hey, you Republicans: when God gives you a hurricane, relax and enjoy it.

Friday, August 24, 2012

When God Gives you a Hurricane...

Republicans have plans to abort the RNC early if a hurricane strikes. In my opinion, that is wrong. When God gives you a hurricane, you should not abort your plans. You should just bring them up as lovingly as you can.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

FIOS is happy to serve us, or so they say...

We switched to FIOS at the end of 2011. We are happy with the result, although I spent three complex months figuring out how to make Verizon fix almost $100 per month of overbilling for services that Verizon eventually agreed were unwanted, promised to be free, or charged at inflated prices. Anyway that was then. I just got this announcement from Verizon:

Effective August 29, 2012, the FiOS Digital Voice calendar feature will be moved to a new system.  Existing calendar entries will not be transferred to the new system and will not be available after August 29, 2012.  Customers should review and make note of their calendar entries prior to August 29th, and will be able enter them into the new FiOS Digital Voice calendar after August 31, 2012.

We appreciate your business and look forward to serving you in the future. 

Your Verizon Team 

Thank goodness I am not relying on this calendar. Reviewing - heck, just finding - all calendar entries that one wants to keep can be slow, tedious work. I got this announcement on August 23 at 8 PM. People who relied on this calendar system and are currently on vacation: good luck to you. I'm sure you will agree that Verizon gave you plenty of warning.

By the way, please note that Verizon's new, replacement system will be available after the old one is shut down. There will not be even one day when people can systematically move appointments from the old system to the new one. Perhaps, on August 30, people will put their appointments on some other system altogether, if they're not happy with scraps of paper.

Here's a hint to Verizon: if you want people's business, give them more than a week's notice whenever you decide to pull a rug out from under them. It's just possible you have competitors who are more thoughtful. You never know.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Catch 22, General Mills!

The New York Times has an article about websites that are illegally collecting information about children without explicit parental permission. The article quotes a spokesman for General Mills who said that GM does not collect the original child’s e-mail address and sends only one e-mail to that child’s friend.

How do they know that they send only one email to a child's friend?

In order to make sure GM sends only one email from Bobby Bevling, who played one of their games, to his email friend Curt Cremable, GM must keep a database with the names of children who played at their website like Bobby, and the names of children they have already emailed, like  Curt.

I believe that is exactly the sort of data about children that it is illegal for them to collect.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Forcing Multitasking on myself. Why?

I sat down a few evenings ago to edit my current novel. But first, I turned my iPad on and set it next to me, so that if any of my opponents in Words With Friends or HeroAcademy played their turn – as they were likely to do – I would be alerted to stop editing and, instead, think hard about my next move.


Why should I carefully set up an excellent distraction, ensuring that I would not be able to concentrate on one thing? Fortunately, I came to my senses, turned the iPad off, and put it away in another room.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

McDonalds Espresso: Excellent !!?

On a long auto trip home, we stopped - for the restrooms - at a McDonalds in the middle of Ct. I asked, feeling doubtful, whether they made espresso, since I did not see a typical espresso machine anywhere.

Of course, I was told. The clerk pressed a button on a coffee machine labeled "espresso" and at once some coffee poured into the cup. It tasted freshly made, it tasted good, and it was not the slightest bit bitter. Remarkable, I'd say.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Somebody Moved my Cheese today:

I entered the Princeton Public Library, intending to find my next audio book. The shelving had been heavily rearranged, and I had a few moments' trouble figuring out where the majority of the audio books were.

I'm so used to entering those audio shelves, and recently I've been listening to books by one author, S. J. Rozan. Seeing my usual target completely obscured, I had a true "somebody moved my cheese" moment.

Fortunately, if I may mix metaphors, I made lemonade from the missing cheese. I recalled that, at my advanced age and with my glasses-enabled eyesight, I tend to select only those audio books that are one shelf below my neckline. The moment I saw the audio books in their new, far different layout, I rejoiced that I would see different books and have a rich choice of new authors.

And next time, I'll know where to find my cheese.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Pointless? (Bucket List):

I do not have a bucket list. Organizing my life to include many specific, planned experiences does not appeal to me. Life is far too short to try to fill it with everything that matters. If I occupied my time fulfilling a list of things to do, who knows what amazing, spontaneous events I might miss? 

 I’ll give you an example.

Someone I know had a medical appointment, and I was happy to chauffeur. And of course, that meant spending time in a waiting room.

I have never experienced anything like this waiting room, not even in department stores. While I sat, relaxed and unhurried, I let my eyes run over an extraordinary tasteful panoply of brassieres and female undergarments in every shape, size, color and pattern. They were a pleasure to view, a spur to the imagination.

I had never heard of such a place. I doubt that this waiting room is on anyone’s bucket list. It's just an out-of-the-way place that's waiting to give assistance, help and pleasure to those lucky enough to find it.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A Vested Interest in Weather Reports:

I try not to rely on weather reports. They are a vague approximation from the viewpoint of any one individual, even when they are fairly accurate for a town or a specific area. I try to be ready for what I see in the skies, and I don't mind when the predictions are wrong.

With one exception. I'm required to read weather reports on my radio program. I don't "predict" more than twenty-four hours in advance. This morning I told my listeners that there would be hardly any breeze tonight. But right now, a steady twenty miles-per-hour wind is rippling through my back yard.

I misinformed my listeners! I feel bad.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

An Unpleasant Truth:

The Batman Massacre in Colorado reminds liberals like me how nice it would be if access to guns was better controlled in the United States. It would probably take fifty years to get some control over the enormous quantity of firearms in circulation, but hey, if we had started exercising control in 1950, by now we would have made some progress.

If you are hoping that massacres like this will change the way Americans view gun ownership, forget it. Even liberals have to measure the damage guns do against our country's gold standard: automobile deaths.

We love automobiles in the USA. We drive them everywhere, at a cost of 30,000 deaths per year. (It used to be worse, over 50,000 in 1978.) Gun deaths are harder to record and count, but they seem to be in the same ballpark, with some estimates as low as 30,000 per year.

The bottom line is very simple. Let us Americans do what we want. Collateral damage on the order of 0.01% of our innocent men, women, children and babies is a decent price to pay. Multi-car accidents, where a few dozen cars smash into each other, don't make the national news headlines. Why should a demented shooter?

Friday, July 20, 2012

Cooking tip: stir-frying with Strawberries:

When you stir-fry, whatever the recipe, add a few quartered strawberries, late in the pan-frying. They will add subtlety and depth to the taste.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The "Daily Planet": World's most financially secure newspaper.

Once in a while, The Onion hits one out of the ballpark. Here's their headline: Economically Healthy 'Daily Planet' now most unrealistic part of Superman Universe. And here's a direct quote: "I can play along with Superman using a steel girder to swat someone into outer space, but I just can't get past the idea that The Daily Planet still occupies one of the largest skyscrapers in all of Metropolis and is totally impervious to newsroom layoffs or dwindling home subscriptions," said comics blogger Marc Daigle, ...

Clark Kent: Have you tried Blogging?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Toilet Paper: Feed from the top or the bottom?

People feel very strongly about whether to feed a toilet paper roll from the top or the bottom. Since there's a lot to be said for both ways, one must view the decision as subjective. But:

One of our friends made an objective decision about how to feed his TP. There's an Air Conditioning vent very near the paper roll. If he puts the roll in the "wrong" way, the paper unspools by itself and sails across the room.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Fleeting fame ...

Everybody talks about the weather; hardly anybody talks about the weatherman (or woman).

But check out this one.

Every single web page should be dated!

Every web page should have information on it about when it was created, and when it was last modified. Pages that are generated from databases should indicate how old the data is. To some extent, browsers could enforce this rule. Why don't they?

How often do you check out a review on a web page, or instructions on how to do something, without knowing whether it was posted a month or six years ago? There ought to be a law.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Do you think that food is Organic?

The New York Times has a good article on the "oversizing" of the Organic food business. Big Food companies have discovered that you can price organic food products much higher than their conventional competitors, and they have moved deeply into organic foods. The big companies need to produce "organic" food on a bigger scale, and so compromise is a big temptation.

Now there's a board that tries to control the notion of what Organic Food is, and it maintains a list of acceptable substances, as part of the Electronic Code of Federal Regulations. The board is gradually being co-opted by the Big Food companies, but their control is not yet overwhelming. For example, the board voted recently on whether to allow an actual herbicide in growing some organic foods, but the herbicide was voted down.

I wanted to see the list of acceptable organic ingredients, and I found the list on this webpage. But don't rush to click the link yet; please, read on.

The remarkable thing about the list is that it is buried in verbiage on this page. It's preceded by many, many definitions and procedural matters. It's obvious that all that legalese wouldn't be needed if the organic food business was mostly the work of sincerely committed farmers and the like. But with companies trying to "push the envelope" it becomes necessary to define absolutely everything.

To see the actual list, go to that page and search for "Alginic" or "Bentonite". Both of these words are near the top of the list. The list allows: in organic food, or in the preparation or packaging thereof:
Carnauba wax
Chlorine materials (with exceptions)
Diethylaminoethanol (one specific use only)
Tetrasodium pyrophosphate (for use only in meat analog products)
Orange shellac-unbleached (not as horrible as it sounds, perhaps)
And many of your other favorite flavors.

The Times article interviews, Michael J. Potter, the founder of Eden Foods, and suggests that Edenmight be the last pretty large organic food company that is not pushing the ingredients envelope.

In any case, remember to wash your sugar cubes before you eat them! Cheers.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Making you eat Broccoli?

Now that the new health bill has been blessed, more or less, by the Supreme Court, are you afraid that the federal government will make you eat some specific food? Well, I have news for you. The government has already been making you eat something: corn, and/or all the many other foods and food products manufactured from corn.

Corn production is favorably blessed by the federal government, which also keeps the price of imported sugar high. You can avoid corn, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, corn etc., and corn etc., if you read labels very carefully and prepare some of your own food. Frankly, if the government tried to shove broccoli down our throats instead, it might be better for us.

Wave her off:

After my morning radio show on WPRB, the first third of my mile-walk home is uphill. There's a bus that runs up campus every few minutes, and I'm always happy to catch it.
When I drive to the station, I take a long walk through the parking garage and then a short walk to the station. That same bus picks people up at the garage, and sometimes I can see the driver waiting for stragglers.
Two weeks ago I saw the driver, a hundred feet away, waiting for me. I thought that was a shame. She would wait for me to come out of the parking garage and turn away toward the radio station, and then realize she had waited in vain. I needed to give some sort of hand signal that would convince her not to wait.
After a moment's thought, I cocked my arm, palm out, fingers spread, and swung my arm down. I had gotten it right. She drove away.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

How I learned to Swim (the Boff):

I have always been a careless fellow, noticing little of what goes on around me. When I was nine I could not swim, so I always wore plastic waterwings in the water. They enabled me to paddle out beyond my depth, certain that I would not sink and drown.

One day at the Spillway pond I was splashing happily in the deepest place when I noticed that I had forgotten to put on my waterwings. I scrambled out of the pond, ran to my parents, and crowed, “I CAN SWIM!”

Thursday, June 28, 2012

How I learned to Swim (Intro):

I want to tell you how I learned to swim, but first I shall invoke some memories of where I learned. The date was 1950 or 1951, and around this time – there were polio scares every summer – we did not go to public pools. We spent some time at the bay beach near Jones Beach Stadium (Long Island), where I generally played in the sand. But when we visited Grandma Paula, we swam almost every day.
Her farm was in the lower Catskills near the Ashokan reservoir. We usually went to the “Cold Spot” or to the “Spillway pond”. The Spillway pond was the preferred place, but its water consisted of runoff from the Ashokan, and in dry years there was no pond at all. In wet years, the pond was deep and its current too fierce.
The Cold Spot was always the same, wonderfully swampy with water spiders, wasps, and reeds in many different clusters and shapes. After we swam there, our parents carefully plucked the leeches from our bodies.
Rarely, we swam at “The Weir”, a great expanse of shallow water. I'm not sure why we generally avoided the Weir, but perhaps the reason was a retaining wall of the Ashokan that loomed fifty feet above, shutting out the sunlight on even the brightest afternoons.
I learned to swim at the Spillway, rather suddenly, and tomorrow I plan to tell you about it.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

One, Two, Three, Many (on the radio):

I usually organize and broadcast a 2.5 hour radio show of classical music, every Tuesday morning. This week I subbed for the DJ with the 8:30 slot, so I had a five hour program. (I shall do the same on the 26th. You can hear me at, 6:00 a.m., EDT, Tuesdays.)

For 6/19/12, I had an unusual idea for a show. I called it “One, Two, Three, Many.” And here's what I did: I played a solo piece, then a duo, a trio, a quartet and so on, right up to a nonet. And then I completed the show with Mozart's Gran Partita for 13 instruments. (You can hear part of that piece near the beginning of the movie Amadeus.)

The incredible thing is that I had to do very little time management. The program fit exactly into a five hour period. Wow!

All the music was terrific. The composers were Bach, Mozart, Bartok, Haydn, Hindemith, Schoenberg, Berwald, Schubert and Martinu. You can check out the actual playlist here.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Email was not invented in the 1970's:

VA Shiva Ayyadurai claims to have invented Email in the early 1970's. Nonsense! In 1968, I joined a Princeton, NJ company called Applied Logic Corporation (ALC), which offered nationwide timesharing to its customers. In addition to using compilers and various applications, all customers could exchange Email, using a mail program with "To", "From" and "CC" capabilities. The mail program was in place when I arrived, in January of 1968; it had been written even sooner.

The mail program may have been developed by ALC, but it may also have been offered by the developer of the hardware and system software: DEC, in their PDP 6 operating system. We developers at ALC used email heavily to control our specs, share modules and cooperate on testing. We thought it was absolutely wonderful to have Email.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Garry Moore (2):

Garry Moore was exceedingly popular for about one year during the run of his TV show. It was produced in Manhattan, and during that year he learned never to stop moving on the sidewalks. If he stopped to chat with an admirer (he was often recognized), a crowd would form, making progress impossible. When greeted, he learned to say something brief, perhaps add a handshake, and move on.

One night he left the studio late and met a fellow on one of the empty side streets. The fellow spoke some sort of greeting. Garry brifely clasped the man's arm, said “You betcha,” and moved on.

At the end of the block he realized what the man had said:
“This is a stickup.”

He looked back. The man was standing in mid-block, staring. After a frozen moment, the man turned around and ran away.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Garry Moore:

Garry Moore was one of the first TV show hosts I truly enjoyed. He was much more low-key than modern talk-show hosts. The talk-show had not yet been invented, so his show was Variety, complete with a small orchestra and a regular singer, Peggy King. When it was time for her number, he might say, “Sing, Peggy King.” Occasionally he said, “Sinj, Pejjy Kinj.”
Although I remember many hours of gentle amusement, I remember very few specific gags, but here’s one to share with you. He held up what I hesitate to call a pair of glasses. There was only a single lens, centered in the frame. The live audience tittered.
“These seem to be lost,” he said. “But there’s a name: ’A Cyclops.’ Mr. Cyclops, you can pick your glasses up after the show. Please be sure to bring some identification.”

Thursday, June 07, 2012

One Towel Only, Today:

The fitness center where I swim provides a towel service. The towels aren't large but they are good enough to save me, and many appreciative members, the trouble of managing our own towels. My fitness center is almost the only one in our area that provides towel service. They ask us to limit ourselves to two towels per visit, because the service is so expensive. They have to buy towels and pay people to wash them, dry them, fold them and move them from place to place.

Last Monday a sign said: Temporarily, please use only one towel. There will soon be more towels.

That was a challenge for me. I need a towel to keep me from freezing in the A/C when I return to the locker room; that same towel to sit on in the steam room; a towel to dry with, after I shower; and a towel to step on so that when I change into my socks, I need not stand barefoot on the locker room floor. (Fungus, anyone?)

I can make two towels suffice for all this. That one-towel limit was onerous, but I managed.

A short, Spanish-speaking attendant came into the locker room to remove the bin of used towels. I wondered if he knew what the problem was. My brain told me not to bother. He wouldn't understand my question; I wouldn't understand his answer; he wouldn't know the problem. But I have gotten so used to chatting with strangers lately (at my 50th Reunion) that I plunged right in:
“What's the problem with the towels?”
He stared at me and said, “Dryer is broken.”