Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Have you ever watched a Silent Movie?

Before “talkies” as you know, there were silent movies, often with text captions to show you roughly what people were saying. You may have seen some of the silent classics on late night TV; there’s some great acting in silent films.

I think we’re going to get another chance to see silent movies. Many manufacturers are betting that the general world wants to have cell phones and PDAs that can show movies. This is NOT like integrating an audio player with a cell phone! Movies require a lot more concentration, and you have to wonder when people will make time to watch a movie on the small screen. My rather cynical idea is that we’ll be happy to watch on our phones while pretending to pay attention to a class or a meeting. We can pull a sly one pretty easily then, as long as we don’t have to listen to the movie. We’ll need silent video, captions and all! Give me a comedian as funny as Buster Keaton, and I can get through any boring meeting.

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

We were once Burglarized (or, you might say, Redecorated) in Manhattan:

After a visit on the East Side, we put into our car trunk: two big speakers, a phonograph, and a framed picture. We then parked on the West Side and visited friends. Returning to our car we could see that the trunk had been jimmied open. Inside we found that nothing was missing, but the picture was now under the phonograph, which was now under the speakers. Someone had taken our stuff out and replaced it. What the?…
I’ve imagined a big tough guy walking up to our thief and saying “Put that back!” But I’m afraid that after looking at our stuff, the miscreant just decided it was junk of no value.
I told a friend about this adventure a few days later. “Where do you keep your spare tire?” he asked. “It’s under the trunk,” I said. “Well it’s gone now,” he said. So I looked: the thief hadn’t taken our spare either.

Monday, March 29, 2004

Polychromatic Salad:

I like a salad with radicchio, green and red and yellow pepper, carrots, capers, green and black olives, kale, red cabbage and as many more colored ingredients as I can find. I figure every vegetable with a separate color has its own combination of trace chemicals and minerals. The more colors, the healthier it has to be.

Sunday, March 28, 2004

Some Good lines from Resumes:

I’ve come across some memorable sentences in resumes. Not all of them were embarrassing, either.
“I met or exceeded all expense targets.”
“Reason for leaving job: I just sent my resume to company X. I was curious to see what would happen.” (I’ll bet he would do this while working for me, too.)
“I also have capability of expression by writing.” (From a hardware designer.)
“Wrote low level software for high definition TV.”
(In contrast, I personally have written high level software for low definition TV.)

Friday, March 26, 2004

We get Spring the old-fashioned way:

As Spring tentatively touches down in the Northeast USA, we people inhale the mild air and Spring aromas with joy and gladness, looking forward to the floral displays that will follow. Some of you who live in places like L.A. may feel superior, you have good weather like this all the time. But let me tell you, I’m not sure you can appreciate it properly. Spring is Spring when it’s preceded by frigid weather, ice snow, brown ground, cold winds and cold homes. Here in the North, we experience Spring the old-fashioned way: We Earn It.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Smug Test:

Many years ago I interviewed a guy for a programming job. His only qualification had been writing programs to monitor pigeons in psych experiments. (He was a good hire though, turned into a fine programmer.) I asked him, “When you’ve finished writing the first draft of your program and you think it’s ready to run, what do you do next?”
He replied, “I guess then you Smug Test it.” I realized a minute later that he had actually said, “I guess then you Smoke Test it.” Smoke Testing is a hardware thing – you think you’ve built an engine correctly; you turn it on, and if smoke pours out of it, you must have made a mistake. But we programmers are incredible optimists. We always KNOW that this time we’ve told the computer exactly the right thing to do. And the first time we run a new program - full of hope and pride, watching it crash spectacularly - that’s the Smug Test.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Justice Antonin Scalia: quick-acting, loveable cuss…

In January 2003, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia could not resist commenting on a case that was likely to reach him for review. This CBS news story gives you a feeling for his position: Although the Constitution says the government cannot "establish" or promote religion, the framers did not intend for God to be stripped from public life, Scalia said Sunday at a religious ceremony.
Supreme Court justices have strong opinions on many things, and they rule according to their opinions all the time. But it’s not cricket to go public with these opinions before the case reaches the court. Scalia has now recused himself from the appeal on whether “under God” belongs in the pledge of allegiance. Had he been willing to keep his opinion to himself, he would now have a fine public forum for his position, and he would likely have found himself casting the deciding vote as well.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Is the Movie too Loud for you?

If you ask an usher or any official-looking person at the cinemaplex to turn the sound down, chances are they will. Many movie theaters don’t collect votes or follow some intricate system, they just respond to the last complaint. If you ask during the previews, they will tell you that the previews are louder than the movies; but during the feature, they’ll turn it down for you.

Monday, March 22, 2004

A Call to all Place-Namers:

Computers have been with us for half a century. It’s about time for you people who name roads and places to stop ignoring this thoroughly modern subculture. There are so many evocative names waiting to be used! Where are Algorithm Alley, Broadband Boulevard, CRT Circle, Hard Drive, Lap Top Lane, GUI Road, Silicon Street. Where is VoIP Valley? Pretty Good Privacy Mountain? And where is the beautiful Blue Screen of Death Lagoon?

Sunday, March 21, 2004


Do you ever find yourself trying to get every last dirty dish washed, or putting out every bit of garbage for pickup? Dirty dishes form a pipeline. The Dirty Dish Pipeline flows more or less continuously through our lives. Ditto garbage. We have to deal with lots of other pipelines as well. I find it helps to recognize what's a pipeline. If I know I'll never really "finish" it, and it's enough just to keep the flow moving, I find life less aggravating.

Friday, March 19, 2004

You say it’s going to be a really long bus trip?

[I got this from the BSD fortune Cookie program. Lord knows where they got it:]
Aleph-null bottles of beer on the wall,
Aleph-null bottles of beer,
Take one down, and pass it around,
Aleph-null bottles of beer on the wall.
[ Repeat ]

Thursday, March 18, 2004

They’ve got Momentum…(!)(?)

There really is such a thing as momentum in sports. If you or your team has ever had it, or faced it, you know the feeling, where everything suddenly clicks (or fails) despite your previous assessment of the opposition. What sports announcers call momentum is almost NEVER momentum. One or three good plays in a row is just statistical noise. To put it another way: Momentum causes many good things in a row. Many good things in a row is not necessarily momentum.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Computer Smell Interface (and other senses)?

People keep trying to add other senses to the computer interface. As a software developer, I’d like to be able to deliver an electrical shock to some computer users, but I think that adding smells is just a bad idea. Imagine that we all have computers that can generate smells under program control. Then imagine ten million computers infected by the “skunk” virus. Or worse…

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

A Cautionary Tale:

This morning I hosted a five hour classical music radio program. I wrote a little computer program to choose music randomly from the 3500 CDs in the station’s regular classical collection. I spent some thought on this program, because I wanted each “run” of the program to tell me everything I needed to know: choose which shelf, choose the “nth” jewel case on the shelf, which CD in the jewel case, which track to play. The program was very simple, so I hardly tested it.
The second time I ran it this morning, the program produced exactly the same numbers as the first run. “Idiot”, I told myself. (I realized it would produce the same numbers EVERY time.) I quickly chose something the old-fashioned way, and while that was playing, I modified my program to produce differing results.
Simplicity is fine, but each computer program still deserves to be well-tested.
And it turns out that my random number program has excellent taste in music.

Monday, March 15, 2004

The unique author of the Wizard of Oz:

There are about fifteen OZ books, and most of them demonstrate an extraordinary skill of Frank Baum’s that is rare among writers for young children. If you will kindly pick up your copy of the Wizard of Oz, remembering that it’s not the same as the movie, and skim it for a few minutes, you’ll quickly notice this skill. There’s plenty of plot and action in these books but very little suspense. Quandaries, problems and challenges develop, but are usually disposed of a few pages later.

Many young children – old enough to enjoy it when you read books to them – are not ready to handle suspense. It can make some kids extremely uneasy. Frank Baum never lets these youngsters down.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

This Just In, movie lovers:

Mel Gibson is so delighted with the success of his "Passion" movie that he's planning a sequel. I'm not sure what the sequel will be about (!) but it's going to be called: "Lethal Passion 2."

Friday, March 12, 2004

Scent lacks Direction:

I was once walking our Basset Hound on the nearby college campus. Another dog was about 50 feet away. Both had their noses to the ground and did not see each other. After a while my dog crossed a place where the other dog had been walking. Nose still down, she started to trace the exact path I knew the other dog had walked. Then the other dog reached a point where my dog had been, and now each was carefully following the other’s track. The dogs proceeded to separate, as each was tracking the other backwards in time. You never see dogs make this mistake when they track criminals in movies.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

"Amateurs." Indentured Servants?

The March 9, 2004 New York Times Science section had a fascinating article about archeology and history of the ancient Greek Olympics. The article included one jarring note for me: "The athletes, although considered amateurs, were allowed to accept cash and valuable gifts before and after competing." The reporter seems to feel that the modern idea of "amateur" is right, and the ancient Greeks were an anomaly.
Actually, the modern concept of “amateur” was modeled on the Greek idea, but mistakenly forbid amateurs to take compensation. This peculiarly modern concept discriminates in favor of the gifted idle rich, and against brilliant but poor athletes who often must take illegal payments in order to work the many hours per week that their sports require. Forbidding the athletes to receive money strangely causes those who police this policy to keep much more of the available dough. Olympics administrators slaver over all the money the sports bring in.
At many colleges, the major sports are run as highly profitable businesses, except that the employees are officially not allowed to receive even the minimum wage. If college star athletes had to be paid what they were worth, the “business” of major college sports would quickly lose its profitability and wither back to where it belongs: as an amateur experience that’s good for well-rounded students. I’d like to see every big university try to collect from its alumni football supporters to pay their star starters each $100,000+ per year. Succeed or fail, it would be poetic justice for me.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Civilization evolves over time:

You know that already of course. If you’re awash in digital music and bemoaning how insensitive we’ve become to graphic violence, not to mention the prevalence of terrorist attacks, you know the times are a-changing. Still, I saw one of the more remarkable aspects of change in the New York Time Op Ed page recently. A third-of-a-page article - in small type no less - attempted to explain Einsteinian Relativity, to show why Newtonian Physics is inadequate, to discuss problems that Quantum Mechanics raises, and to try to change our view of Time. Now in Contrast: In the 1950’s it was fashionable to say that perhaps ten people in the world understood Einstein. No one would have thought to popularize his ideas in small print.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

What’s the difference between:

What’s the difference between being hungry and being anxious? In fact, many of us have trouble telling the difference, the physical sensations are quite similar. (If you want to know who we are, here’s a useful clue – you can ignore thin people.) Don’t confuse fear and its dry mouth symptom, with the very different symptoms of anxiety.

I've made a small change in how comments are handled on this Blog. (I'm on the paid server now, not the free one.) I lost a few comments making the transition (my fault, not Enetation's), but I hope that comments will be processed better in future. Please keep making them, you often make my day!

Monday, March 08, 2004


And now, let’s describe a scene from Queen Victoria’s 12th regnal year: the angler steps across the stream, avoiding a gnarl at the base of the sequoia, and onto a great white rock. Poised, his large hand grips the rod, he casts. The fly catches in a tree, the reel fills with horrid knots, and we learn his anger. Sorry, I should have posted this last Friday.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

A Sporiginal Oonerism

William Spooner gave his name to the slip of the tongue in which you swap the beginnings of two words. Like Yogi Berra, he said less than has been attributed to him, but he may well have chided a lazy student thus: "You have tasted the werm."

One evening when I was sixteen and in summer camp, Louie, a friend, came by to commiserate. He had tried to ask a girl out, and he was pretty sure their liking was mutual. But he had said several wrong things and she had turned him down. Louie lit a cigarette, took a sad puff and said ruefully, "I'm a fupid stool."

Friday, March 05, 2004

Flavored Coffee?

What do you think, is it nice to have some arcane flavor in your coffee? I have great respect for the industrial strength chemicals -- impregnated into coffee beans – that manage to remind me of some flavor or other. I have even more respect for the chemicals in bottles that you can squirt into your cup.
But really, if you like added flavor, you’ll do better to provide it yourself, even if you’re buying the cup of coffee. For example, put a vanilla bean in a jar of sugar for about a month, and you’ll be able to sweeten your coffee with a fresh, delicious vanilla flavor. You should also consider some of the great, traditional coffee additives that you might not find in contemporary flavored coffees:

  • Cardamom: Goes particularly well in Turkish coffee, but it’s good with any coffee style. You can try sprinkling the powder into your cup, but you get the best results by removing cardamom seeds from their pod and grinding them with the coffee beans (I do about one pod per cup.) Cardamom coffee is popular in Greece, south-eastern Europe and Eastern Asia.
  • Anise: Same treatment (powder or seeds) as above. Anise seeds are easier to deal with than Cardamom, they do not come in a pod.
  • Chicory. Originally (perhaps) intended as a coffee substitute or to deal with coffee shortages. They like chicory in France and in New Orleans.

Thursday, March 04, 2004

Some Baltimore Voter has a great sense of Humor:

Avi Rubin, a serious critic of eVoting computer security, got himself some valuable experience by serving as a judge in the 3/2/04 Baltimore Primary election. He wrote up his day’s experience. Here’s a quote:
Perhaps the lightest moment in the day came when one voter standing at his [voting] machine asked in the most deadpan voice, "What do I do if it says it is rebooting?" Head judge Marie turned white, and [Diebold-knowledgeable judge] Joy's mouth dropped. My heart started to beat quickly, when he laughed and said "just kidding." There was about a two second pause of silence followed by roaring laughter from everyone.

And by the way, here’s Rubin’s comment on that reaction: Everybody was willing to believe that this had happened, and yet when it became clear that it didn't, we all felt relief. I'm sure that the other judges would have claimed that this was impossible, and yet, for a brief instant, they all thought it had happened.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

We are closer to passing the Turing Test:

In 1950, Alan Turing proposed a test that might determine whether a computer can express intelligence. (Of course the test is not gospel, and its terms have been critiqued ever since.) The t h e t u r i n g t e s t p a g e web site paraphrases this test as follows:
The interrogator is connected to one person and one machine via a terminal, therefore can't see her counterparts. Her task is to find out which of the two candidates is the machine, and which is the human only by asking them questions. If the machine can "fool" the interrogator, it is intelligent.

Some bizarre progress has recently been made towards passing this test. Search this page for the word “Natachata” and the discussion that follows. (The page discusses spam issues inaccurately, and makes overblown claims towards passing the Turing test.)
Natachata is software widely used that chats erotically with people who visit Porn web sites. Each copy of Natachata may have thrown some human ero-chatters out of work. The article has interesting anecdotes about people clearly taken in by the program, and also a rather spooky note: some people who figure out that they are flirting with a computer rather than a person, seem to prefer it that way.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Lightly Warmed Ice Cream:

I hope you know that ice cream does not taste best right out of the freezer. Ice cream must be kept very cold to preserve it, but to really savor the taste, you need to let it warm up and lose its sense of solidity. So in order to enjoy ice cream properly, you must be patient. Or, you need a microwave.
You’ll have to experiment, but after a few tries (and if you eat lots of ice cream, we’re talking mere days here), you’ll find just the right setting for a good-sized portion in your favorite microwave-safe dish.
We have a very weak microwave, so I usually do 10 to 18 seconds. I suggest you start with about four seconds if you have a powerful unit.
Microwaving ice cream is intuitively off the charts, but the results are excellent. (Add the maple syrup before you microwave.)

Monday, March 01, 2004

Human (click!) Nature:

Here’s a quote from an article at Wired about battling the MyDoom virus:
But with viruses increasingly well-hidden, Mikko Hypponen, F-Secure's antivirus research director said the responsibility for protection ultimately will come down to technology firms because people have proven they cannot resist clicking on mysterious attachments.
"I've lost my faith in education. It never helps, people will never learn.... They will click on everything," he said.
Personally, I don’t believe people are so na├»ve. I think the experts should assume that some disaffected, unhappy and disbenefitted employees are clicking on virus the attachments intentionally. I also suspect that some people get into a “groove” processing their many emails, where a click on the next attachment becomes utterly routine.