Sunday, December 29, 2013

Better Funding for the NSA:

You may not have realized it, but sequestration and the desire to cut back on federal spending have placed a lot of pressure on the NSA. The NSA’s self-appointed goal is to monitor every possible means of communication, everywhere, just in case those means are used by terrorists. Old methods of communication never die, but we are always creating new ones. Thus the NSA needs to increase its budget by leaps and bounds to keep up with new channels that might be subverted by terrorists. How can that be done on a fixed budget?

I am pleased to announce that help is on the way. In fact, the NSA may soon be self-supporting. Their best heads have cracked this walnut, and even now, just like other websites such as Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Snapchat and Twitter, the NSA is determining how to monetize the data they have.

Friday, December 27, 2013

I recommend the Dan Jerusalem Hotel:

My wife and I have stayed at a hotel near French Hill in Jerusalem, many times. From the hotel one has a marvelous view of the Old City, including the Golden Dome, and one can pray facing South (instead of the usual East).

The Dan company took over this hotel about three-plus years ago, and it is now the Dan Jerusalem.  Originally it was the Hyatt Regency, and then it became just the Regency hotel, but now it is operated, very nicely, by Dan.

The Dan company has improved the hotel in many ways. We stayed there for almost two weeks. We enjoyed the hotel's many perquisites, and we appreciated how well the hotel staff dealt with Jerusalem's record 18" snowstorm.

The hotel has over 500 rooms, and they cater to many tour groups. One of the pleasures of staying there is talking to visitors in these groups. The hotel make subtle adjustments to its immense breakfast smorgasbord to accompany the needs of some of its visitors. The hotel is within walking distance of a small shopping center that includes a supermarket. Altogether, the Dan Jerusalem is a fun place to stay.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Hey! You called me!

I received a phone call this evening that I found quite offensive. I wonder if anyone will agree with me.

First, let me establish the ground rule: if I call, say, a bank, and want to do business with them, then they have the right to verify who I am. That makes perfect sense.

Tonight, I got a phone call from a person who said they were calling from CVS Corporate about a prescription of mine that was due for renewal. "Okay, I said, what is this about?"

"First," she said, "I have to ask you to identify yourself."

And that's where I ended the phone call. She called me. She called my home phone number.  If that's not enough identification information for her, then I think she should not call me at all.

By the way, let's not assume that this is a story about CVS, because I forgot to ask the caller to verify herself.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

What is a "Public Place?"

You have probably all seen the video in which a policeman threatens to ticket a guy for washing a car in the driveway of his own home. In the course of the video, the policeman explains that the guy's violation is: washing a car in a "Public Place". But what is a public place?

You can find several legal definitions of  "public place" on the Web, and some of these definitions happen to agree with what the policeman said: A public place is any place visible to the public (I am paraphrasing). Most definitions of Public Place are more intuitive: they define a space in which public activities occur, because the public has direct access.

Obviously, what matters is how Garden City, NY defines "Public Place". (I understand that Garden City is where this video occurred.)  I found their legal definition on the internet! Here it is, and Garden City's definition implies that the policeman was wrong, because the car washing did not occur in a public place. Here's a copy of their definition:

Any public street, road or highway, alley, lane, sidewalk, crosswalk or other public way, or any publicresort, place of amusement, park, playground, public building or grounds appurtenant thereto, school building or school grounds, public parking lot or any vacant lot.

I wonder whether all this viral publicity will make Garden City change their definition of "public place" to make car-washing in a driveway illegal.

A terrific phone rental service for trips to Israel:

We have just returned from two weeks in Israel. We needed to be in contact with friends, and we needed a GPS for our rented car. UnlimitedIsrael rented us an iPhone 4 at a very reasonable price. The phone came loaded with software, including Waze, a mapping application that knows Israel's roads very well and gives good driving directions. The phone made our trip a lot more pleasant, and Tani at unlimitedIsrael was always there to answer our questions. (I'm an experienced iPad user, but this was my first exposure to a smart phone.)

There was no extra charge for calling people in Israel and the USA. There was no charge for using data with apps on the phone. Altogether, a very nice experience.

I traveled Zen Class, in Style!

I have a Zen class bag (by Nirvana). Here’s the Amazon page for it. On an airplane trip, the bag hooks over the folding-down tray on the seat in front of you, and its many pockets place a remarkable number of items at your finger-tips. (On the trip home, there was no seat right in front of me. Instead, I hooked the bag over my TV monitor, and that worked just as well.)

I usually try to put everything I might need in the Zen Class bag: magazine, book, deck of cards, earplanes, medicines, vitamins, pen, etc., etc. And I was lucky. On the plane trip out, as we were walking down the corridor to the actual plane door, we encountered a dragonlady who forced almost everyone, at this last moment, to check their carryon bag.

“Just let me take one thing on the plane,” I said. I took the Zen bag out of my rolling case, and also took out my iPad 2. I slipped the iPad into the Zen bag, and that was all I took on the plane. And for an 11 hour trip, it was more than enough.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

26. … b2! What a Chess Move.

Young Magnus Carlsen now leads Viswanathan Anand 6 to 3 in a 12-game match for the world chess championship. Carlsen will become the next world champion if he draws or wins any of the remaining three games, a likely conclusion. I’ve been following this match. The games begin too early for me, so I joined today’s decisive ninth round at about 7 a.m., in the middlegame.

Carlsen made a defensive move that looked desperately ugly, 25. … Ne8. It seemed obvious that Anand had a simple mate in four with his queen and rook. I eagerly went to the live commentary. Was there any way Carlsen could avoid mate?

The first words of the analyst I heard were, “I don’t see how Carlsen can avoid checkmate.”

We watched and waited, and then Carlsen played b2, threatening to queen his pawn if Anand’s attack persisted. Anand could have withdrawn his pieces to defend against this pawn, but if he did, a victory seemed unlikely. Instead, Anand moved his rook up to proceed with his mating plan, leaving his first rank undefended, and Carlsen queened his pawn with check.

There are many exciting games in which a player sacrifices his queen for a mating attack. This was different: Anand allowed Carlsen to have two queens on the board while he proceeded with his attack. Carlsen’s defensive tactic was obvious: if he could sacrifice his extra queen for any of Anand’s four attacking pieces, he would blunt the attack. This exciting chess position deserves a lot of analysis, but so far it appears that with best play, the game should have been a draw. Sadly, Anand, twice Carlsen's age and suffering both physically and mentally from the stress of this match, blundered and resigned.

26. … b2! What a move.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Here’s how IBM can take Watson to the Next Level:

Today’s New York Times has an article by Quentin Hardy about how IBM has beefed up its Watson program (the computer system that defeated two humans in Jeopardy on TV). The general idea is that Watson will be a powerful computing application in the cloud. The article suggests that IBM is unsure how to profit from Watson-in-the-Cloud, but by making it available, they will find out.

I can tell IBM how to take Watson to the next level. Make a deal with Facebook! Here’s how it would work:

Facebook users could make a single query, or buy a few minutes of time for queries. The price would range from, say, $1.99 to $29.99, depending on the number of queries and the user’s level of privacy. IBM would charge the least amount for a single query that was accessible to all Facebook users along with its answer. And of course, Watson would get access to the Facebook user’s own data, if they agree, to help Watson tailor the answer to the questioner. And of course, IBM (and Watson) would be able to save all the Q’s and A’s, anonymously, to improve their system.

Here’s how IBM would benefit:

First, I’m sure that hundreds of scientists have worked on this question: what do people want to know that Watson can tell them? Well, after the Facebook deal, an additional 150,000,000 people or so will offer their suggestions. Crowd Wisdom can innovate.

Second, IBM will make money. I’m sure you can imagine the trickle of funds coming from this arrangement, but it’s better than that. Some public queries will go viral, and everybody will want to know how Watson will answer them. Thus, some single queries will each be asked 50 million times, yielding nice profits.

Hey, Watson, what are my chance of earning a million dollars in my lifetime?

Hey, Watson, is it time to look for a different job?

Hey, Watson, where should I look for my lost hat?

Hey, Watson, how should I roast my 22 pound turkey?

IBM: Facebook is calling …


Sunday, November 10, 2013

I am trying to give up football:

I am a fan of professional football. When I watch games on TV, I often rewind to go over plays four or five times. I like to understand how offenses and defenses work, and to appreciate the skills and planning that come together to make a good team. I'm a Giant's fan.

No more. I hope.

I'm well aware of the violence that drives this sport. I know that the more violent team gets a real advantage. I know that teams try to injure key opponents, or to wear them down with brutal tackles and hits. I know that in the locker rooms, the veterans give the rookies an unconscionably hard time. I've known all that for years.

Now I know about the concussions. I know that hundreds of thousands of kids are playing tackle football and rattling their skulls, imitating the professional players whose league is still trying to pretend that concussions aren't all that serious.

I can't, in good conscience, get my enjoyment from a game, however deep and fascinating, that brutalizes its humans for my pleasure, and encourages the brutalization of the youngsters whose unlikely goal is to make it to the pro level and earn millions.

Frank Bruni summarized the issues very well in an editorial on pro football today, a column called Violence, Greed and the Gridiron. What he wrote was my last straw.

I really ought to stop. And I'm pleased that I didn't see a single game today.

I'll let you know if I backslide and start enjoying pro football games again. But I think I'm through.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Welcome to the New York Tech column, David Segal!

David Pogue has left the New York Times, and - apparently - the weekly Thursday Tech Column is now being written by David Segal. I think we are very lucky to have Mr. Segal take over this column. He has been a very fine writer for the Times, and I look forward to some stimulating Thursday columns.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Jakob Nielsen's website offers articles about usability in computer user interfaces. The recommendations are based on studies of people trying to use apps and websites, as well as common sense. There are many articles here worth reading, but I wish to point out a new one about the rather horrendous user interface that people must navigate in order to sign up for insurance. The author is Jen Cardello, and the article's title is:’s Account Setup: 10 Broken Usability Guidelines

The bottom line here is that users who find the interface frustrating will spend much more time on its screens (contributing to overload of the system), and many will give up and overload the support staff with phone calls. The developers of the healthcare website seem to have made many bad decisions (please read the article!), but two are particularly fascinating:

There is an enormous image atop the first screen. Users with low resolution CRTs may not realize that there is anything they can do on this screen, because the instructions are lower down. Many users will have to figure out they must scroll to get started.

Users must supply a unique ID, but they cannot use their email address as their ID. Email addresses are unique (although I must say people's email addresses can change, and that could be a problem). The instructions, and the process, for selecting one's ID and password are unnecessarily complex and confusing. Why? 

Why wasn't there a good user interface specialist to help the developers design this website?

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Conference Call: They Are Not Listening!

I have retired, and I no longer work in a business world that has irrevocably changed.

I recall many long, dreary conference calls. The essence of a conference call is that too many people, at too many locations, have an interest in some greatly wounded but still thrashing project. Some part of the conference call will involve us, so that we must stick the phone to our ear, listen, and wait.

Brian Brushwood, on a TWIT show, brought the utterly new business world to my attention when he exclaimed: “Those people on a conference all: they are not listening! They are playing Candy Crush!”

Oh, I wish I had had an iPad in 1986.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Robison Predicts!

When the auto companies began competing with each other to sell cars by offering the best computer user interface, I predicted that within ten years, they would give up and offer a standard connection that car buyers could use with their own IOS and Android (etc.) devices. Some of the auto companies have made a great step in that direction already. They are trying to standardize a programming interface for a version of Linux to be used in all cars.

The software that automakers write for cars must be hugely expensive. Among other things, every version of their software has to be tested and tested, to avoid bugs that will crash a car or cause major, public, black eyes. You can divide the cost of development by the large number of vehicles sold, but you will still have a painfully large number that drives up the retail price.

Now here’s a new prediction, unless GPS manufacturers have already gotten on top of this one: When I check the distance to a “favorite” location that I have stored in my GPS, the device shows me the distance to that location as the crow flies. (Let us assume straight-aiming crows.)

I travel often from my home to some of my “favorite” locations. The GPS could easily remember my ACTUAL driving mileage, and show it to me as my “last time” mileage when I select a favorite. I’m sure that GPS devices will add this feature; it’s too useful, and pretty easy to add.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Another of Parkinson's Laws, and Apple:

We are fond of quoting Parkinson's best known law, but he proposed other laws as well.

My personal favorite from his book, Parkinson's Law, seems unlikely at first. He argues that when a corporation, or any large organization, builds its ideal building, that the organization is in the throes of death. Here's why: a vivid, active organization has no time to plan its ideal building. It is expanding, fighting fires, scoring exciting victories, changing direction, etc. When at last, the organization has a clear sense of itself and and time to plan exactly how it should be housed, it has left all that useful excitement behind; it is dying.

Here is a sneak peak at Apple's plan for its ideal corporate headquarters. Enough said.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Here's an excellent short video by Bruce Schneier at TEDx:

Bruce Schneier gives a 12.5 minute lecture on the past and future of powers - great and small - controlling the Internet. His talk is nontechnical and informative. A lot of people are viewing it, so it may take a while to start playing on your computer. Here it is.

You might also wish to know that the quills of the African Porcupine are a lot nastier than the quills of our American one.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The R.I.A.A is suing the NSA?

You’ve probably noticed that the NSA has been able to tap into the backbone of the internet, to siphon off enormous tubs of data for later analysis. The penny has dropped at the R.I.A.A. We know that people often attach song files to their emails. The NSA is storing our data, which means that NSA files contain scads of illegal copies of copyrighted material.

This reporter had questions for the appropriate R.I.A.A. spokesman. As you can imagine, the central question on the table was: What might the R.I.A.A. gain from such a lawsuit?

The response was not surprising. Current law allows the R.I.A.A to collect $25,000 for each illegal copy, and of course they want their statutory penalties. I wondered how much that might amount to, and I was not surprised: Billions, Trilions, who knows? We’ll find out during Discovery.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Analyzing Random Data:

Before we get to the random data, I wish to share something with you all. Out of the blue, I got a promo email from, a website that offers an editing tool for writers. I am going to test it out on my unfinished novel next week, but I have already used it to test for plagiarism. I’m sure you agree that plagiarism is a rare concern for unpublished authors, but it can happen. That’s why I am happy to copy the following sentence into my blog entry (in exchange for something of value from the people at, and complete that sentence as an advisory to you all, to remember when you are busy writing something new:

"I use Grammarly to check for plagiarism because I hate to discover, when it’s too late, that I’ve plagiarised myself."

The web is buzzing about a phony paper submitted to – and published by - a distinguished Romanian science journal. I am reading the entire paper – bits of it are terribly funny - but I suspect that most of you have better things to do. So I am providing you with one delicious excerpt. Please bear in mind that this phony paper was created to prove that a decent Romanian journal might publish anything. The article is about selecting methods of analysis randomly, in order to analyze random data and get results.

An Excerpt from:

The first experimental results came from 2500 trial runs, and
were not reproducible. The next batch of results come from only 50
trial runs, and were not reproducible. Continuing with this rationale,
the many discontinuities in the graphs point to improved precision
introduced with our decision tree algorithms. Such a hypothesis at
first glance seems unexpected but fell in line with our expectations.
As hypothesized, the final run was sufficiently consistent, which shows
the useful convergence of our heuristics.

Incidentally, scholars are working on a gender-free term to replace "hermeneutics." Their work is so hush-hush, that if you search for himmeneutics or themmeneutics, Google will refer you only to hermeneutics. Try it...

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

We Need Another Acronym:

I often want to end an email with this unwieldy acronym: NNtRtTeM.
Since no one would know what it means, I have to spell it out:
No Need to Respond to This eMail.

It is often polite and helpful to end an email this way, especially when writing to professional people who, I fear, will be obliged to respond to some information I have sent them out of politeness. They will appreciate my email to them all the more if they do not have to cudgel their brain about how to respond.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Deadly Double Play:

One of the most exciting plays in baseball arises when the runner from first base comes flying into second, hellbent on disrupting the defender who has taken a throw, stepped on the bag and is trying to throw accurately to complete the double play. Collisions at second have caused major injuries. Second basemen and shortstops flinch from these collisions. Their efforts to step clear before making that throw have caused many double plays to misfire.

Perhaps there is an explicit exception somewhere in baseball’s voluminous rulebook, but I doubt it. In fact, these attempts to break up the double play should never happen. They are allowed only because of the excitement they generate. Here’s what should happen: the moment the umpire sees that the runner is trying to interfere with the play, he should call the other player – the batter – out for interference. Why? It should be obvious.

The moment the defender steps on second base, the runner coming from first is out. Once a player is out, he may not try to influence the play. He can’t get in the way. He can’t try to make a throw bounce off his body. So why can he try to mow down the defender who is trying to make a throw?

Baseball can do without these threatened collisions. And perhaps, if there was no threat of being knocked down, the defenders would be more careful to touch second base while holding the baseball (see my previous post). Play ball! But follow the rules, please.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Phoney Double Plays:

You’re probably happy that I haven’t blogged about baseball much this summer, but I’ve seen a lot of double plays this year, and I can no longer remain silent. What really got me was a game highlight, a video of Tampa Bay “almost” making a triple play.

The ball was hit to third base. The third baseman had a great opportunity to touch the base (out #1) and fire to second (out #2), where the second baseman caught the ball, pivoted quickly and threw to first. The throw arrived just too late. And that’s a good thing (or maybe a bad thing?), because if this play had been called a triple play, it might have gotten a little more inspection.

In the video, you can see that the second baseman caught the ball about three feet from the bag, on the third base side. He made no attempt to approach the bag while whirling around to throw to first. There was no out at second! But the umpire called that runner out.

In fact, umpires will call the runner approaching second out at the slightest provocation. It’s more common for the fielder at second to throw and then touch second, or to touch second and leave the base before receiving the ball. But the fielder always gets A for effort.

This is not a new issue in baseball. One of baseball’s foremost cartoonists complained about sloppy double plays in the 1950’s. Today, when we have video replay, so that every fan can see when the umpire is wrong, why don’t the umpires call the force at second accurately? It can’t be that hard.

My next post will be about the OTHER problem with double plays, an issue that annoys me just as much.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

A Surreal Elevator:

After broadcasting my radio program this morning, I wished to leave the building. The radio station is in the cellar of a building with four above-ground floors. A conventional display shows where the elevator is.  I prefer riding to walking. There are about 25 steps to reach the first floor.

When I approached the elevator, its display said: 1. Great, I thought, I have only one floor to wait. I pressed the button.

The display went blank. Then it displayed:  k

The display went blank. Then it displayed:  v

Have you ever heard of a building with floor "k"? Or floor "v"?  I took the stairs.

Aida500, Where are you?

I have been playing regular Scrabble on my iPad against an excellent opponent, Aida500. The company that operates Scrabble online has suddenly erased all memory of people I have played, making it impossible for me to play Aida500 again. Aida, I told you about my blog address; if you are still checking it, please get in touch. Thanks!

Monday, September 02, 2013

Tobias on Dune: (7) Saving the Worst for Last:

I will mention one aspect of Frank Herbert’s that writing drove me crazy during the audio book. Good writers sometimes Tell you what is happening, and often Show you what is happening. Telling takes fewer words and pages, but Showing is much more dramatic. Poor writers often Tell when they should Show.

In Dune, Herbert’s favorite tic is worse than Telling when Showing is required. Herbert loves to Tell you that character A senses how Character B is behaving. He doesn’t Show us how B behaves; he doesn’t Show A reacting to B; instead, he Tells us what A can Tell about B. For example (I made up this illustration): Jessica could sense that Paul was noticing the strange way their visitors acted.

Near the end of Dune, Herbert reveals something essential – in his opinion – about all of humankind. Paul explains this revelation as the foundation of his ability to seize knowledge of the present and the future: Men are all takers, and women are all givers. Paul breaks through a fundamental barrier, because he’s the only one who can give just as well as he takes.

This categorical separation of men and women into takers and givers did not sit well in 1965. It sounds worse in 2013.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Tobias on Dune: (6) Did Herbert write the ending first?

In my introduction (see below), I speculated that Frank Herbert wrote the end of the book first (about the last 10%). Then he wrote the beginning. Then, after a lot of research and invention, he wrote the rest. I am basing my guesses on two indicators:

(A) Writing style. There are some quirks in the beginning and the end that you will rarely find in the middle. My favorite of these is the way characters move. They are forever “crossing” to each other, as in: Paul crossed to Jessica.

Crossing” is a common stage-play direction, but I think it appears rarely in novels because it is undescriptive. Did Paul walk fast or slow? Did he slouch? Was he eager? Actors and directors can figure that sort of thing out, but readers want to know. In the middle of the book, characters “cross” less often.

(B) Character: If you read Herbert’s other writing, you will marvel at his rich invention of Sci-Fi technology and how he uses it to create stories. But you will notice how rarely his characters come to life. We are lucky that Herbert did better when he wrote Dune. However, it is quite noticeable that the characters in the final scenes have hardly any presence at all. Paul Muad’Dib might be forgiven for becoming a force of nature instead of a person, but it is still striking that at the end, he is all bombast. Baron Harkonnen has no character in his last scene. Feyd Rautha is even more of a stereotype. Thufir Hawat and Jessica are cardboard.

I think that Herbert developed his characters over time, after he wrote the end of the novel.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Tobias on Dune: (5) Here’s a surprise: the thrilling parts are static.

New Zealand has apparently passed a law that outlaws software patents. The legislators believe that blocking software patents will encourage innovation. I agree with them, even though I was part of a team that tried, in 1969 and 1970, to acquire a number of software patents. Hoorray!

So, back to Dune. In this novel, the planet Arrakis is, all by itself, a mystery. Herbert drops hints that it’s important to understand all about the Melange spice, and we have to wait and wait while he gradually fills in the roles of the Maker and the little Makers. It’s exciting, and Herbert makes the excitement work, but note: he this creates excitement by revealing the details slowly.

Herbert does much the same with the political intrigues that delight us in this novel. He lays out much of the push and pull between the major players, and then he gradually reveals more stresses and strains among them. There may be plots-within-plots, but these plots remain static.

There are some exciting action sequences, but they do little to change the balance of the intrigues. We know that Doctor Yueh will commit treason. We know that the Fremens will fight better than the Harkonnen troops.

There are intrigues that are full of action. Almost all of these deal with Baron Harkonnnen: his handling of the Sardaukar; Instructions to Feyd Rautha, Rautha’s treachery, etc.

When I first read the novel, all of these scenes were exciting. But during the re-read, I knew how trivial and unimportant to the main plot they were. The baron’s machinations generally annoyed me. He got away with his lies too easily, and a lot of what he did just didn’t matter.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Tobias on Dune: (4) The Audio Book: (Oy)

The audio book of Dune utilizes what should have been a great conceit: actors speak the parts of the main characters! Except that often, they don’t. Much of the book is narrated by one man, Scott Vance. Vance has to use his own acting skills to conjure up voices for the principal characters, and I suspect he was not given access to the other actor’s voices. His own imagination differs far too much from the actors we hear. The worst casualty is Paul. He is played by a fine actor with a teen-aged voice, but Vance speaks Paul's lines pompously in a middle-aged voice. The Baron Harkonnen is another casualty, acted in a rich, African-American voice that seems poles apart from the way Vance speaks Harkonnen’s lines.

Vance is British, and he narrates Herbert’s prose with an inappropriate British accent. None of the actors use the same accent. The contrast is vile.

One of Frank Herbert’s stylistic quirks might have remained hidden if Scott Vance did not unearth it: Herbert has unintentionally written a few weak, Shakespearean sentences, similar to this (a made-up example): We must resolve to change the awful thing. Vance makes such sentences sound like they belong in Shakespeare's plays.

The audio book did correct a mistake in my own pronunciation. I thought to pronounce Muad’Dib as: MOO-ahd Dib. Apparently, the author intended: m’WAD Deeb. All the actors pronounced the word that way.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Tobias on Dune: (3) Riding those Worms:

The Fremen’s ability to ride the monstrous worms of Arrakis is one of the great conceits of the novel Dune. Just imagine: the rider stands still in the desert, while a “thumper” draws the worm to roar past him. At the key moment, the rider uses hooks to grab the passing worm and jumps aboard. (Herbert even explains how the rider can steer a worm.) The image of boarding a great worm spurs the imagination, and Paul’s first ride on a worm is one of the great scenes in the book. I read the entire novel back in 1965 without realizing how impossible it would be to board a moving worm.

Frank Herbert was especially good at imagining sci-fi technology, so I believe that he understood what I am about to explain to you. The novel is quite coy about how fast the great worms moved.

Internal evidence in the book suggests that the worms traveled 50 to 100 miles per hour. A lookout flying in the air warns spice miners when worm-sign is seen, and the workers have just minutes to clear out before that worm attacks them. Therefore, worms must be able to close in on workers from six to ten miles away, in minutes.

A journey from the northern to southern hemisphere of Arrakis is a “ten worm” journey. Arrakis must be similar in size to the earth, because its gravity is similar. A worm can be worn out in a few hours by a skilled rider. Obviously, these worms have to move very fast when they traverse the hemispheres.

Stilgar warns Paul not to stand too close to the worm before boarding it, because the sand spray kicked up by the fast-moving worm is dangerous.

Now imagine yourself catching a ride on a car that drives past you at 50 mph. (Do not try this at home!) If your arms aren’t yanked off, your body will be mangled. You might hook a car and jump on top of it, if it was moving less than ten mph. The Fremen could not possibly hook a ride on those fast worms.

By the way, there’s a website devoted to photos of baby animals. It's devoted to a serious cause, and it is impossibly cute.


Sunday, August 25, 2013

Tobias on Dune: (2) Imagining the Future:

Science fiction writers take a great risk when they imagine any sort of future: the passage of time may make their overall view seem risible. Sci-Fi movies are especially risky. The audience that sees a movie forty years later will note at once the clunky, old-fashioned technologies that populate future-tech. For example, imagine a world with booths that can transmit people to other planets, space flight, laser pistols, and clunky, 1950s-style telephones.

Frank Herbert is particularly good at imagining his future. In his history of Dune, the “Butlerian Jihad” decreed that no machines would be made in the image of a human mind. By decreeing a future without computers, Herbert freed himself from having to imagine how computers could transform the future. And, in my opinion, he is on solid sci-fi ground when he imagines new technologies in his universe. I will provide you with two very minor “clunkers” to illustrate this point:

(A) Saguaro cactuses grow on the deserts of Arrakis. I believe that in 1965, Herbert was unlikely to know that Saguaro cannot grow without the protection of “nurse trees”, such as mesquite. Saguaro grows up under the protection of a nurse tree, eventually killing it as the cactus grows tall. Nurse trees - decidous, needing more moisture - probably could not grow on Arrakis, and Herbert does not mention anything like them. Therefore, Saguaro could not grow on Arrakis.

(B) The people in Dune wear wristwatches that appear to do nothing but tell time. More amazing, they need to be set by hand to the local time zone!


Thursday, August 22, 2013

Tobias on Dune: (1) An Introduction

Frank Herbert published his wonderful Science Fiction novel, Dune, in 1965. At that time, Ecology – central to the plot of this novel – was a new field, unknown to most people. I picked up the first edition at my local ibrary. The book was big. It started with a long glossary. (Yes! The glossary came first, for good reasons.) I needed just a page or two to realize I was beginning a fine, original, inventive adventure.

I later read a lot more Frank Herbert. He was wonderfully inventive, one remarkable sci-fi idea after another. But his characters had no life. We readers were fortunate that for once, in Dune, Frank Herbert created memorable characters, a whole bunch of them.

Dune influenced my thinking a lot, more than I realized until now. In particular, I remembered the thrilling, gradual revelation of the ecology of Dune, and how understanding that ecology enabled Paul Muad’Dib to win his war. And I remembered the thrilling intrigue, plots-within-plots, that drove this novel.

Has Dune stood up to the passage of time? I recently decided to revisit this novel, and I listened to the Audio book. Frank Herbert’s writing technique is barely serviceable, but the novel did not let me down; although near the end, I kept telling the narrator to “get on with it.” But the passage of time has revealed many quibbles, which I shall share with you in the next few days. For starters, here’s a teaser: I can never be sure, but I believe Herbert wrote the end of the book first (about the last 10%). Then he wrote the beginning. Then, after a lot of research and invention, he wrote the rest, making minor edits to what he had already written, to achieve a seamless whole.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

re: Talisman Prologue HD: I hated trying to register for the forums.

I have been enjoying Talisman Prologue on my iPod 5.  I had one or two suggestions for the developer, so I tried to register at the Talisman forums. I couldn't! One of their tests, to make sure I am not a computer, is to ask me for the name of the Talisman software developer.  It's not clear whether they want the name of a person, or the name of one of several companies associated with the game. I did not know the developer's name, but I did consult several computers (that is, websites) to find out. These seemed not to know, either.

I wasted MUCH TOO MUCH time trying to answer this question. Each time I failed, I had to type in my (long) password twice, again and again, because the registration form erased those fields. I wonder how many people have been able to register at all.

So I give up. I will never register there, I guess. Talisman people, can you hear me? Make the registration process a little bit easier. And here is my primary suggestion, which would improve even the prologue game:

Implement the SAVE function. Talisman is a long, leisurely game. It is a lot of fun, but NOT when I have to start over every time I stop to check out my email, or to check out anything else, in fact.

I know that the full game will have a save function when it is ready for the iPad. Please add the save function to the Prologue version, NOW.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Have you ever tried to wash your dishes with Olive Oil?

Some things shouldn't go into the dishwasher. We wash those things in Ivory Liquid, a whitish soap in a white plastic bottle.

The last time we were out of Ivory Liquid, our supermarket was out, too.I bought Ajax liquid soap, instead, and it works just as well. It has taken a long time to use up the bottle of Ajax, and I can't wait to go back to Ivory. Ajax is yellow, almost the same yellow as our regular olive oil.

I'm thankful that I have used up the Ajax without pouring it into the pan to fry onions and potatoes. I'm thankful I haven't poured olive oil over the dirty dishes in the sink.

I think I'm very lucky.

A note on my diet: as usual, I am slightly under 220. August would be such a great month to lose a few pounds in.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Zynga's audio advts crash me every time! Bad, bad idea...

Zynga thought of a new way to bug me with ads while I play "Words with Friends". Every few minutes, they interrupt my concentration by playing an audio ad in the background.

Perhaps you think I should turn the sound off?

If I did, I might not know that every single time they finish playing an ad on my iPad2, their app crashes. That means I have to reload the app every few minutes. Until I decide to delete their game.

But it gets worse: I paid $15 for their No-advts-plus-extra features deluxe version of Words with Friends. I SHOULD NOT GET ANY ADS, PERIOD!!!!

For starters, I am carefully noting the companies that advertise in these boringly repetitive WwF ads. I might never buy from any of those companies again. I certainly am unlikely to try out another Zynga game. And I might give up on WwF, although it is my favorite iPad game.

Come on, Zynga! Test properly, and fix!

EDITED TO ADD: I tried to report this bug to Zynga. I could not find a Zynga forum specifically for words with friends. I did find another person complaining, in Zynga's support pages, about the new audio ads. In order to add my comment, I would be forced to log in via Facebook. Zynga allows a private log in for their forums, but not for adding comments to their support issues. Come on, Zynga! I'm pretty disgusted.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Go, EFF!

I just made a donation to the EFF, to thank them for their efforts (such as the EFF's First Unitarian church vs NSA suit) to combat the NSA's illegal massive surveillance of us all.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

First the Fourth Amendment, now the Second!

I had planned to deadpan this blog entry and pretend it was truth, but my wife does not want me to put my life at risk. Here is some fiction for your perusal.

The media seems overwhelmed by all the revelations in Edward Snowden’s treasure-trove. Still, I am amazed that they haven’t gotten to this story yet. Its first mention appears in an NSA document laconically called “Manufacture” (very, very late March 31, 2008), and further details appear in numerous other secret memos. The NSA has developed tiny ID chips, nearly impossible to find, and it has forced American manufacturers of rifles and weaponry to embed them in their products. There has been a lot of international arm-twisting at high political levels, resulting in the cooperation of several international weapon manufacturers as well (you can find their names in the published NSA files).

Of course the NSA has distributed millions of sensor points throughout the USA, and these tiny chips also communicate with low-flying drones. The NSA knows the location of every rifle, semi-automatic, automatic, magazine and bullet manufactured in the last five years. And, cross-correlating with their other databases, they know where this materiel is, and who owns it. These tiny chips can also be programmed to self-destruct in a way that slightly damages a rifle’s aiming mechanism, causes magazines to jam, and interferes with a bullet’s ability to keep a straight course when fired.

Naturally, the FISA court that oversees the NSA has extended their judicial doctrines to rule that the second amendment can be abridged where there is a “special need”. I can’t imagine how loud the outcry will be when hunters and other upright gun owners find out about this.

You may be wondering why the NSA’s tiny chips have not been used against the far-right-wing groups that stockpile weapons and train their troops to resist a government incursion on their rights. This issue and similar ones are discussed in an NSA email titled “What if (tiny chips)”; you can look it up. Simply put: these groups are not terrorists.

The inner-city gangs whose internecine fighting kills hundreds each year, killing many innocent bystanders, are not terrorists, either. The NSA knows where their weaponry is, but they have no “special need” that allows them to deal with gangs. Ditto the drug overlords who distribute hard drugs to American citizens.

Actually, according to an NSA memo titled “More Security?”, a few drug lords were rich enough to buy inside info about the NSA’s program to monitor guns. Since drug violence is not always easy to distinguish from from terrorism, the overlords have been doing everything they can to batten down their distribution channels and stay out of the NSA’s crosshairs.

Bottom line? The NSA’s FISA court has sanctioned the destruction of 20% of our constitutional amendments. Where are our protectors of freedom? And which amendment is next? (Frankly, I fear for the tenth.)

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Yet another Idea for iPad cases:

Manufacturers never cease to develop new cases for our gadgets. Apparently, every case can find an audience. Imagination in this department is running thin, but I have an exciting new idea for cases, and, as usual for me, I am giving it away free.

When I park my car, I often have to leave my valuable iPad inside. I don't want anyone to break open a window to steal it, and that's why I wish my iPad was unnoticeable in my car. And it can be unnoticeable! All we need are cases that match the car's seat coverings. Here's a chance for the automobile manufacturers to get involved. Autos with matching iPad casings, in leather, plastic, and cloth.

My diet could be worse. I'm back under 220 again. But: I want to make progress.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

NSA, Executive Government Officials, please read:

I would like high-ranking employees of the NSA, and high-ranking officials of our federal government, to read the fourth amendment (apparently, for many of them, this will be the first time). I'm just trying to be helpful here, so I have made a copy of the text:

Amendment IV
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

There is no loophole in this beautiful amendment for the NSA's programs. Right?

Nicholas D. Kristof, in his NY Times column today, notes that we seem to have spent about $8 trillion on terrorism in the last twelve years, while skimping on other dangers that kill more Americans than terrorists, such as falling TV sets. I am sure there are better ways our country can spend our tax money, than on saving records of all of our phone calls and mailings.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

The Daily ToDo list:

Lately, I have been trying to get a lot of things done. There are many computer aids for making todo-lists, but I had trouble finding one that I could use – and keep up to date – on all three of my relevant computers. The Any.Do program came closest for me, but there were still many moments when I needed to consult, or add to, my “today” list, and I was away from all my computers.

In desperation, I decided to keep my action list on a 3” x 5” index card. (That’s what I used to do, thirty years ago.)

To my surprise, the index card approach has been effective. Each morning, I write my current list of action items on a fresh card. Copying previous items gives me an incentive to close as many items as I can each day. Otherwise, I find myself copying the same item again and again.

My diet is in disarray, and I think the reason is that I am finally getting over my long-running sinus infection. Usually, I lose weight easily when sick and gain it back when healthy again. This particular bit of good health has snuck up on me bit by bit, so once again I must knuckle down to control my weight. Today I weigh 222.0 pounds.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

NSA Surreptitious activity: At what cost?

We know that the NSA is gathering an incredible amount of email and phone data. We know that the NSA's attempts - so far - to explain how that data has staunched terrorism have rung hollow. We know that other countries will now shy away from using the parts of the Internet that the USA controls to avoid NSA spying. We know that other countries will shy away from using products, hardware made in the USA to avoid NSA backdoors. We know that a few of the crown jewels of United States software, like Microsoft and Google, will be increasingly avoided by other countries to avoid NSA collection of their data.

These are costs to the US. Painful costs, like the loss of attorney/client privilege, which the NSA apparently does not respect. (See the section of this webpage by the EFF, titled "Attorney-Client Privilege Means Nothing".)

But what about the co$t? It is hard to imagine what it would take to be able to record every phone call for years and years, and every email, and lord knows what else the NSA is vacuuming off the internet. Our taxes are paying for these incredible costs. These have certainly been taxation without representation.

Are these costs justified by unsupported claims that the results dampen terrorism?

We deserve a lot more openness about the NSA's programs, so that we can make informed decisions.

Our government has a right to be furious about many of the documents that Mr. Snowden made public. Admissions about some of our spying activities against other countries, and names of operatives and specific operations, can only hurt us Americans. But it appears that most of the NSA operation was kept secret simply to enable it to contravene US law and to avoid thoughtful analysis. We, the people, have a right to decide when - if ever - it is proper for the NSA to break laws, regulations and constitutional amendments.

Monday, June 24, 2013


A word of advice for those many, many companies whose automated message systems advise us that "This message may be recorded for quality purposes." I suggest a rewording:

"This message may be recorded for quality purposes. And it may be recorded in any case. You know what we mean."

My diet hit a serious blip over the weekend, after I attended a happy wedding. Weight: 222.2 pounds and, I sincerely hope, going back down again...

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Fitbit Company says I can wear my new Fitbit Flex while swimming

There is a lot of speculation on the web about whether it is all right to wear the Fitbit Flex while swimming. I thought, why not ask? I sent the following question to the Fitbit Support line:
I lap-swim for one hour, three times a week. The pool that I swim in is at most 7 feet deep. I do not dive. I just bought my fitbit flex. Is it okay to wear it all the time that I swim?
Thanks in advance for your info.

I received the following reply (I’ve removed the polite beginning and ending of their response):

We'll be happy to assist you with your inquiry regarding your Flex water resistance. Flex is the most water-resistant Fitbit device yet. It can be worn in the shower, sauna or steam room. Flex will hold up against sweat, splashes, rain, soapy water and hand washing.
Flex can be worn swimming in pools and salt water, but is not designed to accurately track the distance you travel while you're in the water.
If you're a scuba diver, you'll want to leave your Flex at home, as it's only water resistant to 10 meters, as long as you don't go below 10 meters your tracker should be working properly.
Thank you for being part of the Fitbit family.

Thank goodness I can wear my new Flex while I swim. It is not that hard to take it off, but it is very hard to put it back on. I did not expect it to track my distance while swimming. In any case, I consider 100 yards of swimming to be equivalent to more than 300 yards of walking.

Shameless advt:  If you like to read fantasy novels, please consider my own: Raven’s Gift, an inexpensive eBook. (It’s also available at Amazon as a paperback.)

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Who Lost the Internet?

Nothing new today, but I wish to add my voice to others who are stating the obvious: For years, The USA has controlled the jewels of the Internet, keeping its overall mechanism safe for democracy. Many other countries have complained, and there have been proposals to make the controlling bodies more international, but we have resisted them, until now.

Since the NSA’s meddling with Internet traffic, websites and phone calls is known, other countries will not stand for US control of the Internet. The NSA’s insistence that they are targeting foreigners may make US citizens feel calmer, but it roils the rest of the world. We can look forward to actual splits in the world Internet, or perhaps we can look forward to an Internet where the NSA’s involvement is relatively small, and all we have to worry about is monitoring and surveillance from China, Russia, North Korea, powerful criminal organizations, hackers from Greece, and Ecuador.

The NSA might have caught an occasional terrorist with its monitoring, but the longterm damage will be much worse.

On a much lighter note: I gained a pound on vacation, gained another at home, and then dropped back into my current “safe zone” at 218.8 pounds. I want to lose more weight, and soon.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Crossing the Hudson River, free:

My wife and I have just returned from a lovely vacation in Montreal, Quebec, and Massachusetts. One aspect of our trip fascinated me today.

We drove up the Northway to Montreal. We stayed on the west side of the Hudson river, eventually traveling north of the river's source.

Driving from Montreal to greater Boston, we crossed over to the east of the Hudson, north of its source.

Driving home, we crossed the Hudson in the Greater NYC area. There is no toll for crossing the Hudson East-to-West. By driving north of the Hudson during our trip, we avoided having to pay the double toll for crossing West-to-East.

I must say that ever since the NYC Metropolitan area adopted the system of one-way double tolls for crossing the mighty Hudson, I've wanted to find a way cross the Hudson free. And now, I've done it.

Tomorrow morning, I'll discover what this vacation has done to my diet.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Give me Immunity ...

An I.R.S. manager appeared before an investigative congressional committee yesterday and took the fifth amendment, refusing to testify.

Those of us who grew up in the 1950's know that taking the fifth can be the right way to deal with congress. I imagined this particular I.R.S. manager declaiming, "Give me immunity, or give me death!"

Fortunately, it hasn't come to that.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Oklahomans Are Rational:

After that dread, mile-wide tornado leveled homes and towns in Oklahoma, people are asking why every town in the so-called “tornado belt” (about half the United States) is not required to have a Safe Room where people can try to hide out from monster storms. Such a building requirement would add a lot to the cost of homes, but wouldn’t it save enough lives to be worth it?

There are many cases where we want people to act rationally about a remote threat, and it takes a lot of analysis to understand that the people have already voted, and their actions are already rational. To illustrate the tornado-belt situation, I want to remind you of another building requirement:

In much of Israel, every home was required to have a Safe Room that people could stay in during a SCUD Missile attack. The government provided many citizens with gas masks to wear in the Safe Room. The Safe Rom requirement added cost to building requirements. It must have raised the rent of countless apartments. Israel’s citizen’s accepted this requirement. Were they acting more rationally than Oklahomans?

For Israel, the Safe Room represented a patriotic duty. Its people were saying to the missile firers, You can do some damage, but you’ll hardly main or kill anyone. The Safe Rooms were a duty of pride.

If Oklahoma were to require Safe Rooms in every building, I think they would be sending a different message to Oklahomans: A tornado may come and destroy your home, level your town and leave you with nothing. But you are more likely to survive. That is not a patriotic message. It is a message of despair. I think that anyone who lives in the tornado belt hopes to be spared. Malevolent as they are, tornadoes attack only a small percentage of the population. People do not plan to be desperate, at a considerable extra cost.

If there was a tornado-defusing machine that sucked the force out of any nearby tornado, I suspect that many Oklahomans would be happy to pay extra taxes to have one near their home. That would be a positive message of defiance.