Tuesday, September 30, 2003

George W., The Lionhearted:

Well things certainly aren’t going well, are they? What this country needs, and what I think our president might really enjoy, is a few crusades. Well-selected crusades against terrorism will dramatically improve the US economy and balance the budget. Here are the first few crusades:
- Crusade of the Medicare-elegible to Afghanistan. Take that, Al Qaida.
- Crusade of the Homeless to Iraq. Even if they don’t get all the way there, they’ll find homes along the way.
- Crusade of the public school dropouts to the Caribbean Islands. (Don’t confuse this crusade with the Crusade of the Children, we won’t let them go until they’re at least sixteen.) The goal of this crusade is to put terrific financial pressure on the countries that provide tax dodges to our richest people and corporations, without inconveniencing those people and corps too directly.
- Crusade of the Lawyers to ... Oh for goodness sakes, I apologize for this really cheap shot.

Monday, September 29, 2003

The Ketchup Rule (‘Catsup’ if you prefer):

If someone prepares food for you, and you know they will approve, you may put ketchup on it. But if you prepare food for yourself, you may always add all the ketchup you want. If you’re not sure which foods this dictum applies to, you don’t really understand ketchup.. Some (but not I) would apply the same rule to peanut butter.

Sunday, September 28, 2003

What's the name of that left turn?

Tonight I'd like to ask for some help. There's a certain type of left turn; I don't know what to call it. Sooner or later, giving instructions, I'll want a clear descriptive name for this thing. So: you're driving on a road, approaching an intersection with a traffic light. You want to turn left, but you're not allowed to just go left at the intersection. Instead, you have to go past the light, curve sharply right on a short access lane until you are briefly on the cross road, and then go straight through the traffic light (again) to cross the road you started on. I'd call this an "allemande right/turn left" except that even the few remaining square dancers probably wouldn't guess what I was talking about. It's not a "post light jughandle" either. What's it called?

Friday, September 26, 2003

Take two and run half the distance to first base:

A feller hit four home runs in a baseball game last night, and: that's a record. Of course people have hit four homers in a game before, but never so close to the end of the season; that's why this is a new record. We fans of this statistics-oriented, data-mining sport are obsessed with records, and fortunately the concept of what constitutes a record is infintely extensible. So let's listen to an imaginary sports announcer wrapping up a dull baseball week somewhere in the doldrums of August: "Well folks, no new records were set in baseball today. In fact, this is the fourth straight day without any records being set, and, would you believe it? That's a record!"

Thursday, September 25, 2003

Should User Interfaces all be like Games?

In the early years of Word Processing on the PC, a magazine reporter interviewed the president of Atari (remember Atari?) and asked him for suggestions on making PC programs easier to use. His answer: Games are easy to use; make office program like games. He even suggested making a bomb-explosion sound when a person deletes a file. The reporter swallowed his ideas whole, which I think was pitiful. Today most games still enable you to just jump in and start to play; many of them have almost no user documentation or help at all. (Let’s leave the computer games that require many hours of study before you can use them to the masochists who appreciate them.). So why not make “productivity” software more like games? The answer is simple: the point of most games is to figure out what the documentation really is! The game’s features are mostly hidden at first, or can only be understood and mastered after much gaming experience. When we play computer games, we like to have the challenge of figuring this stuff out. But when we use “serious” software we have a task to complete. We have no patience for the idea that we might have to play around with, say, Microsoft Word for 250 hours before we can figure out its features. Just imagine that you bring up Word, and as you use it skillfully, your score increases onscreen. You need 80,000 points to be allowed to print a memo, 250,000 points to make a table of contents and so on. Or imagine that you must to spend hours learning the precise muscular control and reflexes needed to change a font size. Game software is different.

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Loud, Loud, Loud Music:

Nothing changes faster than wedding customs, but for many years it has been indispensable to blow people’s ears out with loud music at the reception. Some band members wear earplugs, others sustain permanent damage (after which they play even louder, or it sounds too soft to them). Frequent guests can damage their ears also. I hope you’re listening to me! So when I go to a wedding, I usually bring ear plugs. I can still hear the music, AND I can still converse while wearing them. But for every wedding I attend, there’s a small quandary: Should I bring a pair of plugs, or should I bring a dozen pairs and sell them?

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

The Weather Pixie and Tierra del Fuego:

The “Weather Pixie” is a website that will add, to the webpage of your choice, a little picture of a young woman, in which her clothes and the background indicate the current weather. You can choose your own place, or you can view another city’s weather vicariously. In my case, that other city would be in Tierra del Fuego. I have often made unkind jokes about this place (but not in this blog), the southern tip of Argentina, in Patagonia, beautiful but one of the least hospitable climates in the world; and yet people live there. Well, Tierra del Fuego is on the web! At the Weather Pixie site, choose South America, Argentina, and Ushuaia, to get the HTML code you need to link the pixie for Tierra del Fuego. Then Google Ushuaia to find out more fascinating info about this southernmost of cities.

Monday, September 22, 2003

Pouring Water on it would Just Make it Worse:

In the 1950's my father was getting a haircut at his favorite barbershop. Making conversation he said, "You know those plastic shampoo bottles you have; they say they're unbreakable but I just read in the New York Times that they actually break very easily." "Nonsense!" replied the barber, "those are unbreakable plastic bottles." "No they aren't," said my pa. "I'll show you" said the barber, picking up a big greenish bottle of shampoo. "DON'T!" cried my father, but the barber dropped it. It broke and shampoo flooded the floor. It's not easy to clean up a big shampoo spill; just think about it. We're all students of human nature here, so it will not surprise you to know that the barber was very angry with my father.

Sunday, September 21, 2003

Let's make the US National Weather Service Self-supporting:

We owe a great debt to the weather service. First: for its (ahem) incredibly accurate weather forecasts. Second: because for many years it drove IBM to increase computer power so that it could model weather more accurately, and we've all benefited from more powerful machines. So here's the idea: Let the NOAA auction off the right to name each hurricane after a major company. Oh of course I realize a company won't name a dangerous hurricane after itself! What's it worth to Sun to name a hurricane after Microsoft? (Headline: Microsoft comes inland, causes $6 billion damages.) And what's it worth to Microsoft NOT to have a hurricane named after it? We're talking big dollar auctions here; should cause a material reduction in federal taxes.

Friday, September 19, 2003

AT&T War Story #1 (1986) – Lady on the Phone:

In 1986 I consulted at AT&T as a product manager. At one point I needed some information, and I was given the name of a woman at AT&T in Morristown, the only person, I was assured, who could help me. I phoned her and she was busy. I phoned her many times and she was busy. (I did not email my question to her, because in those days, after you emailed an AT&T employee, you had to phone them to tell them to check their email.) After a few days it occurred to me that she was only 12 miles away; why didn’t I just drive to Morristown and go to her office? So I did that. 25 minutes later I was wandering through a maze of cubicles, looking for her. I decided that when I found her cube, if she were not there, or not on the phone, I would feel like a total idiot. But there she was: on the phone. I sat down in her office. After a while she took a piece of paper and scribbled: “I’m on a four hour conference call.” I took the paper and scribbled my question. After a while, she scribbled an excellent two word answer. I left, and never saw her again.

Sunday, September 07, 2003

Proz and Conz:

Some of us take antidepressants, such as Prozac. Others require prodepressants, such as Antizac. The Precision Blogger will be on vacation, and on Antizac until about September 19th, after which blogging this blog shall resume. Meanwhile, here’s a little advice to tide you over: when you look at a bunch of trees, do you have trouble seeing the forest? If so, try looking at a forest that has only one tree.

Friday, September 05, 2003

On the road to Zreidor:

The folks who provide us with the very best in spam have decided that nonsense subject will lines help their messages get through. I’m a sucker for emails with this subject line: “Mail delivery system: mail undeliverable”, but I would never open an Email with a subject like “gdg hfjl retkl ptslv”. However I do enjoy reading half-gibberish. Here are a few genuine spams that have come my way:
Dispelling simple way to avoid Zreidor.
I found your addie.
Rejuvinate your Sexlife Instant.
Largest Loan Program iqpcocjfd nozp.
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Stop that popups forever vflehyhtj.
Introducing GRlfhb1q9dstx1cX2 Pills. GRnjg9sf37623sbX2 will Expand…
Animal Magnetism t p th wpux.

Thursday, September 04, 2003

Access the web from anywhere (and give away your passwords):

I'll be on vacation soon, hoping to access the web (and my email) from many unusual places. Unfortunately everyone should be aware that the computers you meet in hotels and cybercafes may contain SPYWARE that records your every key stroke. I'm going to take a spyware detection program with me that fits on a floppy diskette. I'm not endorsing any brands (haven't tried them yet), but you can find several by Googling for "spyware detect". By the way, why don't web login pages defeat all this spyware? All they have to do is display a keyboard with letters and digits in random positions. When you click on these to type your password, the information recorded by the spyware would be useless.

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

The Ultimate Thrill ride:

Do you like roller coasters and other thrill rides? In his 1951 novel, Step Right Up! (Harper), one of Dan Mannix’s characters describes a thrill ride that’s really stripped down to the essence. I’m paraphrasing after many years, but the description was so memorable, I think I’ve got it right: You get into a seat, then you are lifted up on steel poles about 30 feet above the ground. Then you’re turned upside down, and two mechanical arms come up and try to pry you loose.

Tuesday, September 02, 2003

A fine observation about the human race (half of it, anyway):

“No form of entertainment, no matter how enjoyable, will succeed if the average modern male is embarrassed to be caught doing it by his peers.” Said by David Wong in a discussion of the Nintendo Gamecube, see this link, and search for the word: peers. Let’s ignore the obvious exception.

Monday, September 01, 2003

What happens when you are robbed of your patience and given extra time?

I once wrote a program in Basic to play 4-dimensional Tic Tac Toe. (To win, you had to get four in a row; the board was 4x4x4x4.) The game played well but not perfectly; it spent about one minute calculating each move, and I could beat it about half the time. Then I changed the program. It had the exact same logic but it ran faster and made every move within five seconds. I could no longer beat it EVER, perhaps because I lacked the patience to take that extra 55 seconds to study the position before thinking about my move.