Sunday, December 31, 2006

Football Leagues, Bugs and Fine Ethics:

The Dangerous Logic Blog posted a story about a woman who found out how sleazy her guy was, because of a bug in Mozilla FireFox that exposed to her all the websites he was visiting. She dumped him and filed the bug report to Firefox. Dangerous Logic called those actions a "head scratcher" but they made sense to me. I think a good series of priorities is:

  • Take advantage of the bug.

  • Report the bug, make the world a better place.

  • If the bug's not fixed, take advantage of it big time.

  • Now let me tell you a story about how I practiced what I've just preached. I once became addicted to a PDA program in which you build football teams and play against other teams. No, it's not that one. But this game did have a remarkably compatible PC version, and there were leagues of real people building teams and playing seasons against each other. I was invited to join them, but I know a REAL, REAL timewaster when I see one, so I did not join. If I had though ...

    The great thing about this game was that you actually 'built' your team players, and then 'built' offensive and defensive plays for them, with remarkable variety and options. And you could download many championship teams and try your luck against them. One conceit of this game is that most of your defensive plays have a 'strong' side and a 'weak' side, rather than a 'right' and a 'left'. If the offense lines up with more receivers on one side, then that's the 'strong' side, and your defense's strong side better have an extra defender to cover that extra receiver.

    After you build your teams and plays, you play out a game on your pda, where minimal graphics show you what's happening. And that's how, one day, I watched one of my 'strong' defenses lining up wrong. After some experiments, I realized that it's not trivial for a computer program to decide which side is the strong side, and I could trick the game into making an incorrect decision whenever I wanted to. So what did I do? (Hint, see the above list.)

  • I used the bug to build a few offenses that were really, really good, beating all the teams I could download.

  • I Reported the bug to the developer. He was shocked. He told me that the pc version had the same bug, which meant all those people playing league football with his program had a chance to take advantage of that bug too.

  • He did NOT make a new release fixing the bug, at least for the next eighteen months. IF, and I say, IF, I had joined one of these leagues, you can bet my team would have taken advantage of the bug.

  • Friday, December 29, 2006

    Elderly harmonica player arrested for performing copyrighted songs at bar:

    A Japanese news article that you can read here, reports how an elderly Japanese harmonica player was arrested for playing commercial songs (by the Beatles and others) without paying. I'm just trying to imagine what would happen if we had to PAY to practice Chopin, Beethoven or Czerny on the piano. (Oh, we do pay! We buy the music! Isn't that enough?)

    Thursday, December 28, 2006

    Dragon Naturally Speaking: Interim report #2:

    Do I trust 'Dragon Naturally Speaking' to understand strange word orders or unusual grammar, then will I be disappointed. It turns out that DNL does an immense amount of semantic analysis to understand my dictation. I know this because it translates normal straightforward English very well. But when I want my fictional writing to use stilted English or unusual word order (e.g., see that frst sentence, just above), why then DNL mistranslates fistfuls of words. It's fun to use though, I'm enjoying it.

    Wednesday, December 27, 2006

    Recording Real Life:

    Andy Warhol wrote a book called “A, a Novel,” which is a transcript of an audio recording of one 24-hour period in the life of a person who socializes with Warhol’s friends and associates. When I read ‘A’, I suspected the transcript was cleverly edited, but it’s supposed to be verbatim except for errors introduced by the three teenage girls who transcribed it, and possibly the loss of part of the original (some tapes possibly burnt by one of these girls’ mothers). The title, ‘A’, may be derived from the observation that “uh” is the most common word on the tapes.

    At the time, this book was a monumental undertaking. The artistic reason for that is the incredibly boring nature of the tapes. Few geniuses other than Warhol would have seen the merit in publishing them. The techy reason of course, is the physical inconvenience. Tape recorders were not portable in the 1960’s. You could lug them around, set them down, plug them in, and use them, and in ‘A’, the recorder is lugged a lot. (There are even conversations where the people discuss changing the tapes in the tape machine, which were probably 60 or 90 minutes long, each.)

    Today it would be much easier to record a day in somebody's life and publish it online. But since it’s been “done,” nobody’s likely to do it unless they discover a new angle. Part of Warhol’s genius in writing ‘A’ was to preempt an art form that would have been much easier to invent twenty or thirty years later.

    But I’m puzzled that people are not doing 24-hour life recordings now. (If you do, edit out the fast-asleep part, PLEASE.) Technology has made this easy, Podcasting has made the results easy to publish in raw form, modern mores makes it unnecessary to “bleep” some of the content, and there is surely an immense potential audience that’s curious for this sort of thing.

    Twenty-four-hour-tapers, hit the RECORD button and get going! Post the result in one- or two-hour installments. Lots of us will listen, and you’ll get many comments on your forums.

    Bonus URL: Ed Felton & friends have updated some familiar Christmas stories here. I particularly like the Gift of the eMagi.

    Tuesday, December 26, 2006

    Blinking Seconds:

    Last august, I wrote about how I intentionally watch TV ads to time my thirty second exercises. Well I have an even better recommendation, and I bet you can use this one too. We have a VCR that usually blinks "12:00" at us. (I tend to stop that blinking by programming the correct time into the VCR shortly before the next power failure.) The blink cycle's about one second, so now, while exercising, any time I’m facing that way, I use the infernal blinking VCR to count seconds.

    Monday, December 25, 2006

    What did Microsoft intend with the "Zune"?

    The Zune is a portable music player that Microsoft released for this holiday season. Early on it was rumored to be an "iPod Killer," and rumors abounded about exciting features it would have (and in fact, does NOT have) to draw people away from the iPod. The Zune currently holds 1.8% of the portable audio player market, and Microsoft's official pronouncements about it have been very low key: They are happy to be in this market, it's a good start, etc.

    Now there have been devastating critiques of the Zune, but I'm not going to add to them. I just want to make one point that, I think, no other critic has mentioned. If you visit stores that sell audio players, like Circuit City or Staples, you'll find that the Zune has terrific shelf space. These stores probably pushed eight or ten other products out of the way to feature the Zune so much. Either these stores really believed the Zune would take off (because Microsoft persuaded them of that), or Microsoft paid through the nose for all that precious shelf space. Either way, the amount of shelf space suggests that Microsoft intended the Zune to be an iPod killer. And it's only now that it has a tiny niche in the marketplace, that MSC is carefully characterizing it as a minor product.

    Sunday, December 24, 2006

    The seven different motions of the stars:

    I had a rather weird science teacher in seventh grade. One day he insisted that the sun and the stars do not move. I went home, researched this matter, and angrily used my parent's old typewriter to bang out an essay that I called "The seven different motions of the stars," and proudly handed it to my teacher. A day later he said to me "That was interesting," but he never recanted in class, and he never gave the essay back to me. That was the last essay I ever submitted anywhere for no credit until I started blogging. (Today I cannot recall a full seven distinct star motions, too bad I couldn't easily make copies of papers in the 1950's. It really bothered me that my teacher lacked the good manners to return the essay to me.)

    Old Dross: Apostrophe's:

    In English you can always tell when someone misuses an apostrophe. Thats because apostrophes are never required to remove ambiguity. Theyre pointless, lets get rid of them. I'm even willing to compromise: Why not allow apostrophe's in spoken English but remove them from written English.(Apologies - I dont quite have the nerve to take my own advice in this blog. Might look declassé you know.)

    Here's a rare example of a sentence who's meaning changes depending on whether you write "it's" or "its": Never drink wine before its time.

    Originally publishd (in part) on July 7, 2003.

    Friday, December 22, 2006

    Famous Animal Geeks!

    It's difficult to believe, but there are famous animals who were Geeks, and the top ten are listed here. I feel better already, knowing that the urge to Geekdom is more than human. Some of the top ten will be quite familiar to you: Pavlov's dog, Schrödinger's cat, Dolly the sheep, ...

    Thursday, December 21, 2006

    Hi, Guard! Bye, Guard!

    On my walk from the parking lot to the radio station, I pass a guard in a kiosk who controls most vehicle access to the university. It’s pretty lonely and quiet at 5:50 a.m. I used to wave to the guard as I passed, and the guard (one of six or seven people with that job at any given time) would wave back.

    These days, I never wave, the guard wouldn’t notice me anyway. The guard’s always looking at his laptop, doubtless immersed in the world wide web or a good computer game. I’m not complaining, I’m sure the guard’s life is less boring than it used to be.

    Wednesday, December 20, 2006

    Empowering! (The essence of a general purpose computer):

    I remember when I got my first Palm PDA. I looked at this thing that was ready to record my written memos, remember my appointments and keep a contact list. I asked myself: What am I going to do with this thing?

    I needn’t have worried. A general purpose computer can be gradually adapted to the personality of its owner. It acts a little like a great defensive player in volleyball, covering any part of the court that might be open to the opponent’s best shot. Soon I had many categories of memos, I’d downloaded useful programs, and my PDA has been a constant companion every since. And of course I had a similar experience when we bought our first PC. Now all of what I've just said is background for today's topic.

    I just received a gift: an Olympus DS2 Digital Voice Recorder. I had a specific use in mind when I put this item on my Wishlist, and I knew it was a highly recommended gadget, but I had no idea what I was getting. The DS2 has a remarkable collection of features, practically anything major you might think of adding to a “recording system.” I’m expecting it to gently affect my life in ways unknown as the PDA did, just less dramatically.

    My first use will be something I never considered before. There are Podcasts I lack the patience to listen to because they “happen too slowly.” Either the talk-tempo is literally too slow, or the subject matter is occasionally exciting but mostly boring. But now that I have a device that supports “speed listening,” I’ll give some of those Podcasts another try.

    Tuesday, December 19, 2006

    Oh, No Privacy!

    We've heard about cases where people commit a crime and post (or should I say: boast?) evidence of it at MySpace. Police cruise the Myspace site, find the evidence, and make an arrest.
    Closer to home, Princeton University Security people made an arrest last year, based on evidence in a Facebook photo. There was a big upcry. Students seemed to feel that what they posted in Facebook should selectively be regarded as private (by their enemies, not their friends). Now it's occurred to me that local governments can peruse other web sites to make arrests. In fact, I predict a pretty high return on effort.

    I've noticed that when you display a map at Google Maps, the map will show businesses close to your center of attention. Maps of areas zoned for homes are even likely to display businesses - operated out of homes - that have no zoning variance to permit their operation. Municipalities, make that bust! It's as simple as that. (And yes, I'm thinking about concrete examples.)

    Monday, December 18, 2006

    Dragon Naturally Speaking: Interim report #1:

    I’m learning to use the Naturally Speaking (audio to text, and MUCH more) program to help me write some fiction. This week the program told me something I didn’t know.

    I created a name for a female character: Castia. When I spoke that name to the Naturally Speaking program, I expected it to munge the name badly. (You can easily add words like this to the program’s vocabulary, and train it to recognize them, but I hadn’t done that yet.) The program informed me that ‘Castia’ is actually a word, I’m just misspelling it. Here’s how it converted Castia to text: Castilla. (And I admit, I would pronounce Castilla almost the same way.)

    Saturday, December 16, 2006

    Old Dross: Our amateurs are particularly skilful:

    Like you, I've received lots of porn spam. My favorite item made this boast: We use professional amateurs.
    However I suspect they're lying. I'll bet they use amateurish professionals.

    Originally blogged: July 1, 2003

    Friday, December 15, 2006

    A little more about Microsoft’s Vista employees:

    Last Tuesday I asked what was going to happen to all those Microsoft Vista employees since I believe that Microsoft will be hard pressed to find work for all of them. After writing that piece, I wondered if I’d wake up the next day saying “Oh of course, they can do X.” But if anything, my opinion has hardened. Here are two problems Microsoft faces in keeping these people busy:

    (1) Security: We’re told these days that Microsoft “gets” security, and Vista is (or will be) the most secure OS ever. (Never mind that it’s been pirated already, more than one way …) To maintain good security, Microsoft must keep the number of people modifying it to a minimum, and review their work carefully. We’ve known since the mid 1960’s that fixing bugs in a large piece of code creates new bugs. Even if Microsoft wants to improve every aspect of the OS and add new features to it soon, they must go slow in the name of security.

    (2) Timeliness: Suppose Microsoft starts working on the next version of Windows right this moment, or did that a few months ago. The project must go through much research and definition before a large staff can work on it in parallel. That new Windows can hardly keep more then a dozen (maybe a hundred) people occupied for a year or so. Other Vista employees can go do something else at Microsoft, provided there are “something else” projects that are well-defined and ready for large staffs to develop them in parallel. If these projects exist, they can hardly be secret. What are they, please tell me!

    Wednesday, December 13, 2006

    I can type and think at the same time, but ...

    I make too many typos when I'm typing rough drafts, so I decided to try a dictation program, Dragon Naturally Speaking (the cheap version). Like many truly new experiences, it turns out to be not at all what I'd imagined. There are three ways (at least) in which the actual experience is a terrific surprise, and I only knew about the first one in advance:

    1. You can hurt your throat giving commands to a PC, it's hard to talk naturally.

    2. Naturally Speaking tries to give you a total “hands off” experience. You don't just dictate text. You can make corrections, switch apps, move the mouse, use menus, etc., by voice, all while you lean back at that 135 degree angle that's supposed to be best for sitting.
    3. You have to be able to talk and think at the same time...
    That last one is the killer for me. I hope it's a temporary mental block, not a major skill that I lack. Many people a little older than I have dictated for years, but I've been word-processing for thirty-eight years, I NEVER dictated.

    On the good side, it seems that when I dictate, my speaking style is breezier and lighter than my type-think style. That may have its advantages.

    One more thing about Naturally Speaking surprised me: they have a sane license, you can use one copy, for one person, on multiple computers. That means I can install it wherever I want to use it, I'll just have to (sigh) get the make updates in its dictionary, and have a useful microphone ready to go at every machine. And Why didn't I dictate this blog entry?

    Tuesday, December 12, 2006

    What is Microsoft going to do with all those Vista Employees?

    Microsoft recently shipped Internet Explorer 7 and Office 2007. It's almost certain that the teams behind these products are hard at work on the next versions. But Vista is starting to ship too, and it seems unlikely that Microsoft has a vision of another tremendous five year effort to knock our socks off with yet another OS. Some believe Vista is an end-of-the-line product, in fact.

    Many of the people who have developed Vista, planned it, coordinated it, designed it, written it, marketed it, documented it and tested it will be needed to support it. Bug reports, incompatibilities and user issues will keep many of these same people busy for about two years. But what of the rest? Does Microsoft really have lots of new work for them to do?

    2007 seems like a good time for Microsoft to undo its last expansion, in which they became a bloated company with too many so-so employees. That “undo” would lay off a ton of people, and MSC will be lucky if they can keep most of the good ones.

    Will MSC try the big “undo”? Let's watch for a few months and see.

    Monday, December 11, 2006

    The War against Burnout:

    Here’s an interesting article on the problem of burnout, an affliction that destroys many a fine career. I had an interesting experience trying to prevent burnout, as the manager of a team of software testers. Software testing works best when most of the testers are experienced. Testers need to learn how to report bugs so that developers can understand and fix them. They need to apply judgment to decide what IS a bug. And they need to be alert and imaginative to find new ways to discover bugs. Frequent turnover in a test group leads to lousy testing.

    Nonetheless, software testing is mostly a joyless, repetitive activity. Testers receive a version of the software. They apply a long series of formal tests, many of which are similar to each other. Much of the work requires no thought, only mindless repetition. Filling out bug reports is full of repetition as well. And then another version of the software shows up ready for the same retesting.

    The primary emotions in testing work are extreme frustration and rage at things that don’t work, software that can’t be understood, bugs that are not fixed, and bugs that the company decides are less important than the tester thinks. Eventually there’s the pleasure of releasing a well-tested product, but testers get little respect at this moment, and it’s just a fleeting moment, to be followed by months more repetitive testing of something else.

    When I managed testers, my primary goal was to enable the company to know the quality of their tested software. But my second goal was to develop my tesyers' abilities instead of watching them quit. Burnout happens real fast in software testing, often less than six months. I did everything I could to keep people’s jobs interesting, for example:

    • Swapping jobs among testers, so that they got different software to test.

    • Giving different people turns at planning new tests for upcoming products.

    • Giving everyone turns at doing anything different, such as developing a spreadsheet to report test results, or attending developer design meetings to help ensure that the next product would be testable.

    • Giving everyone turns at joining the product design teams. (An enlightened company understands that test planning is not a late addition to each project.)

    • And I also tried to find a way for people to graduate from testing within three years, so that everyone could hope to move on to other parts of the company instead of quitting to get a new job.

    Helping other people to avoid burnout is an immensely satisfying challenge.

    Sunday, December 10, 2006

    I should KNOW not to rush:

    When I'm in a hurry, if I rush -- and I inevitably rush -- I have either a large disaster or a small disaster. So I really ought to know better. I'm sure that in my youth, rushing paid off so handsomely that I got addicted to it. That was then, this is now, I've got to quit cold turkey. You probably want to hear a little detail, don't you?

    This morning I barely had time to shower before getting my haircut, so I rushed. I poured just the right amount of shampoo onto the palm of my left hand. Now if I rubbed this hand on my head, I'd get all the shampoo in one place, and that's wrong. The right way is to spread the shampoo on both hands, then rub them all over my wet hair. So in my hurry, I rubbed my left palm on the back of my right hand. The BACK! I stood there stupidly looking at all this shampoo on the wrong side of my hand, but what was I to do? I rubbed the back of my right hand against my hair, a silly, inefficient process. Never again!

    I've got it, here's my new slogan: Rushing was okay for the 20th century, but NOT the 21st!!

    Saturday, December 09, 2006

    (Old Dross:) A truly Polish joke:

    The joke is Reverse Polish Notation, a method of notating complex calculations and formulas that never requires one to use parentheses. It is widely used in calculators and computer software. If the great Polish mathematician Jan £ukasiewicz hadn't invented it backwards, it would be called: Polish Notation.

    (Previously posted here in 2003)

    Thursday, December 07, 2006

    Neck Arthritis:

    I didn't get whiplash from the car accident, not really, but my neck did get just enough worse that I was able to figure out a nagging problem: I had thought my sense of balance was degrading.

    Actually that was not the case. Instead I found that if I tilted my head slightly forward and to the left, I fell asleep, causing my body to shift, so that I instantly woke up. I demonstrated this to my doctor.
    "Doctor, When I tilt my head like this I fall asleep. What should I do?"
    "Don't tilt your head like that!" (He really said that.)
    But he explained I was pinching my carotid artery (SCAAARY!) and sent me off to the orthopedist.

    When my orthopedist diagnosed my neck arthritis, he sent me across the hall to Physical Therapy so I could learn to do neck arthritis exercises. I returned ten minutes later to report that the Physical Therapy guy had said, "Well, there really aren't any neck arthritis exercises." Immensely irritated, my orthopedist found a worksheet and taught me a few strange exercises himself. I was suspicious that the Physical Therapy guy had been right until I noticed that I sneezed less often when I went outside into the sun.

    All my life, going out into the bright sun has made me sneeze. Apparently that sneeze results from pinching nerves together in my neck, so that a visual stimulus triggers a nasal stimulus. (And there are lots more people like me who sneeze in the sun, so there!)

    Wednesday, December 06, 2006

    My worst Booboo on the air:

    I had my most embarrassing moment as a radio DJ this week. (Fortunately, my worst moment did NOT occur during the 75 minutes that a microphone was live without my knowledge; I muddled through that long ago period of time without saying anything embarrassing or obscene.)

    I was playing a Bach cantata on a record. The record is part of a set, the complete cantatas, that we have at the station. Most records have one cantata on each side, some long cantatas take up a whole record.

    I was playing a 28 minute cantata. Suddenly I realized it was going to end about two and a half minutes too soon. I scrambled to get a CD ready to play and the record ended. I came on the air, announced the piece and then said something like this:

    ”And this is an unusual Bach cantata, because it doesn’t end with a chorale. Unless … let me check the record …”

    I flipped the record over. There was a lot of small text on the label and it was upside down, but I saw at once that the other cantata started in the MIDDLE of the second side. I put that side on the air and it played for the expected 2.5 minutes, concluding, of course, with a chorale.

    Tuesday, December 05, 2006

    Supersizing versus the old-fashioned way:

    In these days of supersized meals and snacks, I remember a different sort of restaurant meal. My father complained unhappily, long ago, about a restaurant he visited on a vacation. It had been recommended by several friends. Yes, the food was excellent, but it was pricey and the portions were very small. After returning home, my parents learned that they could have asked for seconds (and even thirds) of everything, at no additional cost.

    Monday, December 04, 2006

    You heard it here first ...

    Having made films entirely in Aramaic and Mayan, Mel Gibson will next direct a film made entirely in obscene hand gestures. (There will be subtitles, since many of the gestures will be unfamiliar to most civilizations. The language for the subtitles has not been chosen yet, but may be penguin or dolphin-speak.) To add historical depth to the planned movie, Gibson has hired several archeologists to determine the gestures most likely used to convey obscenities in ancient Pompeii.

    Sunday, December 03, 2006

    Conan The Baratarian:

    I hope there's somebody out there who would find the phrase "Conan The Baratarian" funny. It conflates Conan the Barbarian with Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta, The Gondoliers, or The King of Barataria. I always assumed that Gilbert made up the word "Barataria," but that word has a history: the pirate and privateer Jean Lafitte, nearly a hundred years earlier, named his Mississippi stronghold Barataria.

    Anyway "Conan The Baratarian" is not the most obscurely imaginable attempt at humor . I once made up a joke that only a bridge-playing bassoonist could laugh at.

    Friday, December 01, 2006

    At peace with our screwed-up surroundings:

    I think most of us enjoy unchanging, familiar places in our daily lives. We enjoy what stays the same, we enjoy the subtle variety that accompanies that stable framework. But we can get too used to things...

    I often walk through a quiet parking lot at the local university. There was an emergency phone there, enabling anyone in trouble to quickly call for help. But then the phone was out of order, its callbox tied with yellow "caution" tape. I expected the phone to be fixed soon, but weeks passed; months passed; I (and everyone else who used this lot) just started to think of that out-of-order phone as "natural." Fifteen months (FIFTEEN MONTHS!!!) later it occurred to me that this phone and its yellow tape was not a proper part of my peaceful surroundings; it was weird. I called the university security office; they had no record of this phone needing repair. But they got right on the case! A few weeks later the callbox disappeared entirely, and a replacement phone was installed one year (ONE YEAR!) later.

    That new phone is a nice, stable part of my familiar surroundings.

    Thursday, November 30, 2006

    Harder than calculating a tip:

    When you have a sitdown meal in a restaurant, the waiter takes your order and serves you food, you have to decide how much to tip. But what about those restaurants where you do most of the ordering/serving business yourself? Here's my rule, a good one, I think: either bus your own table, or leave a tip.

    Wednesday, November 29, 2006

    A Gutsy Online Coffee Shop:

    I buy very expensive, delicious coffee – from time to time – from This website is run by George Howell, who, many years ago, operated the best online and "bricks and mortar" coffee places, called “The Coffee Connection” (in Boston). Terroir sells carefully selected, carefully prepared, often free-trade coffee. I recently got an order from them, and a week later received this email:
    Dear customer,
    In line with our mission of providing only exemplary quality we are shipping you, at our expense, another shipment of the Kenya Mamuto you just received. It was roasted too darkly, excessively masking the intense blackberry notes that make this coffee so extraordinary.
    Kenya coffees are the most challenging coffees to roast, tolerating very little variance, with mere seconds making significant differences in the flavor profile. We apologize for any inconvenience we may have caused.

    I tasted the replacement coffee this morning. Now here’s the thing: If I couldn’t taste the difference, would I ever buy from them again? How could I spend all those dollars on their coffee if I was oblivious to their subtlety?

    Fortunately, I could taste a difference. I think Terroir showed immense respect for their customers, treating me this way, and I look forward to buying more of their coffee soon.

    Tuesday, November 28, 2006

    Photcopying - blank your mind:

    Many times I've faced the task of manually, page by page, copying a long article or even a whole book. Thank God that need arises less often in this digital age. Photocopying hundreds of pages is similar to many forms of repetitive exercise. You have to relax into it, give your mind wholly over to it in an emptyish way, and then the work flows without boredom. The bottom line: fifteen minutes or two hours later, a little chunk of your life has mysteriously vanished, and you’ve got this extra copy of whatever.

    Monday, November 27, 2006

    Extension cord!

    I traveled last week, with four gizmos that enjoy overnight recharging. I had the happy thought to bring one of those extension cords with eight sockets. I left all the rechargers plugged into the extension, so all I had to do at a motel was plug in the extension and drop the devices into their several cradles. Very neat!

    Sunday, November 26, 2006

    Another fake fake; I love this stuff:

    I'm not sure what art is, but I do understand that fake art is more valuable than fake fake art. Prosecutors in Dresden, Germany, charged Petra Kujau, 47, with fraud recently for selling at least 500 fake paintings of such artists as Monet, Picasso and Van Gogh. However, the paintings were always clearly labeled as fakes, according to an April Times of London dispatch, and their sale was a crime only because Petra claimed they had been painted by Konrad Kujau (her great uncle), who had a worldwide reputation as a master faker. Thus, Petra is charged with duping collectors into thinking that they were buying original Konrad Kujau classic fakes. [The Times (London), 4-22-06, reported at News of the Weird.]

    Friday, November 24, 2006

    Second Floor!

    The company I work at has my office on the first floor, and the debugging lab on the third floor. I go back and forth between these two locations a lot. So much in fact, that I always forget the second floor exists. If the elevator opens at the second floor, I get off, assuming I've reached my more distant destination. But I've thought up a solution to my problem: I need to post a sign on the second floor wall opposite the elevator saying: HEY YOU! DUMMY! THIS HERE IS THE SECOND FLOOR!

    Do you think anyone would object if I posted that sign? (Please don't try to help me by suggesting that the second floor should be painted a different color. It already IS a different color. And number of each floor is painted on the linoleum just outside the elevator door. Like I say, I need a SIGN!)

    Thursday, November 23, 2006

    The relationship between a movie and its preview:

    Movie previews hardly ever convince me to see a movie. But a preview can easily convince me that I'd never want to see that movie in a million years. Yet I must say, I do enjoy watching movie previews. How about you?

    Wednesday, November 22, 2006

    Should I buy a video player?

    On principle, I never watch videos on a computer. Almost never. I listen to audio a lot, usually while doing something else. But you can't watch a video and multitask. Videos require concentration, they require your time, and they must therefore achieve a much higher quality to be worth the effort.

    Recently I've been deciding what's the ideal audio player to buy next, and -- this is really amazing -- it's going to be a video player. Studies show that, although every company that makes players is pushing video, few people watch video on those tiny screens. I've got an excuse! There are many university websites with fascinating lectures you can download for free, MIT, Oxford, Harvard, Princeton, etc., and most of these lectures are in a video format, usually MP4. It's a bit of a nuiscance to convert MP4 files to audio only, and I've had the experience of listening to lectures where the speaker pops up a slide, the audience gasps, and there's no clear explanation. So I'm thinking I can MOSTLY isten to video lectures, taking quick peeks to see what the speakers look like, or to see a slide. But really, I can be an audio guy and have much more good stuff within reach, if I buy a video player.

    Tuesday, November 21, 2006

    John Dvorak and the Ten Axioms:

    John Dvorak has a charming column on the Ten Axioms of Modern Computing. I know from painful experience that he's talking sense (and so will you). My favorites are:

    USE DEFAULTS. Always let the program choose the default during installation. Give up on the idea that you're in charge of the machine ...

    UPGRADES DO NOT HELP. When you upgrade software nothing good happens ...

    I can add similar advice from my own exprience. When a program prompts you to press "any key", you should press either the space bar or the enter key. You can reasonably assume that these have been tested. Do not risk pressing any other keys, and in particular, DO NOT press the "esc" key.

    Sunday, November 19, 2006

    A difficult jigsaw puzzle:

    On about my 12th birthday I received a gift: a 1000 piece M&B jigsaw puzzle titled "Trout Fishing." This was some tough puzzle! Almost all the pieces were an impressionist mix of dark greens and browns. Nearly half the pieces had three almost straight edges plus one tab or bay. It took my whole family and many visitors six weeks to do this puzzle. So: how difficult was it? Let me put it this way: when there was just one piece left, that piece did not fit in the remaining space! We searched for five minutes to find the ever so slightly different piece that we had misfit elsewhere.

    Saturday, November 18, 2006

    A Clear Memory of:

    When my wife and I spend nights together away from home, we take our modest silver collection and hide it. I always hide the silver in a place I'll call the rumpus room, but last time I decided instead to put it in the chaos room. Now whenever one makes such a momentous change, it's really important to remember it. I didn't relish coming home, looking in the old place and wondering where our silver was. But I now realize that I constructed the wrong memory. I carefully imagined myself putting the silver in the new place, the chaos room ...

    So here it is, a few days later, and I go to get the silver. Of course I go to the usual old place, and it's not there. My heart stops for just a little while, then I think hard and I remember: of course, the chaos room! And all is well. With hindsight I can assure you that I should have constructed the following memory instead: Imagining myself looking in the rumpus room and saying, oh, the silver's in the chaos room!

    Tuesday, November 14, 2006

    Garmin for Klutzes!

    I have a womderful new gadget, called the Garmin Forerunner 205. For me, this wrist-worn device is a deadly accurate, silent outdoor pedometer, faithfully recording the sum of my daily walks. (It requires line-of-sight to GPS satellites, so when walking indoors I track my step totals instead.)

    The Garmin Forerunner and many similar devices are designed to work well for walkers, but their real market is people doing serious exercise. I can spend much more than the device cost to use training and mapping programs on the web. (Without paying extra, I can upload my Garmin data to see maps and analytics of where I've been and what I've done.) Runners and bikers can pay to download challenging courses and share well-designed workouts. I appreciate that Garmin's Marketing department has targeted a highly motivated, highly skilled community with money to spend. But I wish they had the sense to target the "long tail" of potential customers more like me. I would have bought this device years ago if ever I had heard of it. (Thanks to Dick DeBartolo of the Daily GizWIz for bringing it to my attention.)

    Now kindly bear in mind that the last time my son and I went to Shea Stadium for a Mets game, it took me fifteen minutes in the dark to find my car. The next time I park in a big outdoors lot, I'll store the car's location in my Garmin. Then later I can simply ask the Garmin to navigate me back to my car! But do you think Garmin advertizes this feature? Oh, of course not.

    Monday, November 13, 2006

    Unintended Consequences: Legitimizing file sharing!

    The Microsoft Zune is about to burst upon the commercial music scene. Intended as an "iPod Killer," the Zune and its world seem rather short of functionality, except for one thing: It's going to be pretty easy to share music from your Zune with other people's Zunes. Your Zune will detect anyone else's Zune within thirty feet or so and give you an opportunity to trade songs. (According to Zunalysts on the web, this feature is peculiarly crippled in that, should you even create your own music and share it with Zune friends, they will be able to play it only three times within three days before it disappears.)

    I'm going to make a fearless prediction about this Zune feature. Whether the Zune succeeds or not, this sharing feature will have a dreadful (from Microsoft's point of view) unintended consequence: it will legitimize file sharing, making it more acceptable to people in general, by ANY legal or illegal manner. (Another way to say this: the Zune will cause millions more Americans to become targets for RIAA lawsuits against music customers for illegal downloading.)

    To understand my prediction, it’s important to consider that when a market leader enters a market, they tend to make it much more respectable. There were PCs aplenty in 1980, but when IBM started to sell PCs, it became respectable to own one or even use it in business. Similarly, the iPod legitimized buying songs online, Viagra legitimized every hairbrained pill for treating sexual dysfunction, and and Minoxidil (Rogaine) legitimized every other chemical method of restoring hair. The unsubtle distinctions between legal and illegal, possible and impossible, are lost on people (as you can easily see from the spam you get about Viagra alternatives). Similarly, Microsoft’s carefully controlled song sharing on the Zune will simply be seen as “song sharing.”

    Worse, many people will be unsatisfied with how well Microsoft’s Zune handles sharing, and they will seek out the much better alternatives available on the net. Just you watch…

    Sunday, November 12, 2006

    Procrastinating from the heart:

    I often futz around and pull it all together - whatever IT is - at the last moment. But only recently did I realize how natural procrastination is to me. I shall explain:

    My radio program begins at 6 a.m., and at that time I must have the station antenna turned on, the day-starting announcment queued to play, and some music queued up that has not played on our station for six weeks. I used to arrive about 5:50 to 5:55, giving me just time to check out my ideas of what to play first and get everything queued up. But recently I realized that I can search from home to see whether a particular piece has been played recently. (You can too! Go to, click "search", select "fuzzy" search and check for a favortie piece or composer.) Anyway, I now decide the night before exactly what I will play first, running the search to make sure it wasn't played recently. And wouldn't you know it? I now arrive at the station about 5:58 instead of 5:50 or 5:55.

    Friday, November 10, 2006

    Interoffice Envelope Return Address:

    If you've worked in offices in the last century, you're familiar with the interoffice envelope, a strong, flat container for 8.5x11 paper that's designed to deliver mail many times over. The outside of these envelopes usually has many lined areas in which to write the addressee's name and mail stop. Here's an example of a Government interoffice envelope. Now typically, when you want to use one of these, you grab a used one from a pile somewhere, cross out the last person's name, write in your addressee's, drop it in an "out box", and away it goes. This is getting really boring, isn't it?

    Now, wake up and think about this question: How do you put a return address on one of these envelopes? This is not a dumb question. You might really want to get the thing back if your addressee has just been fired. Or you might feel that you'll get better priority when the addressee sees who it's from. Now here's how I do it, and I must say, it strikes me as bizarre:

    1. Make sure all previous addressee names on the envelope are crossed out.

    2. Address the envelope to yourself.

    3. Cross out your name and mailstop.

    4. Address the envelope to the addressee of your choice.

    The person who receives the envelope may see your crossed-out name next to theirs, and suspect the thing came from you.

    Thursday, November 09, 2006

    A hearing aid that looks like an iPod:

    Many hard-of-hearing people do not get hearing aids because they would be embarrassed to wear them. It's time for Apple to make the great, humanitarian gesture, and license the look and feel of their iPods to companies that make hearing aids. No stigma attaches to wearing iPODs, almost anywhere.

    Tuesday, November 07, 2006

    The IRS wants to tax your Mobuls (or Lindens, or whatever):

    The IRS is making noises about taxing the money people make playing online games like Second Life and World of Warcraft. Unlike fungible property in the real world, game-worthy items and currency have no true value until they are actually cashed out. (Okay, in the real world, real estate is like that too.) I expect any attempt to tax game profits will produce wildly unintended results, and little revenue. But the IRS employees who are detailed to enforcing such collections (instead of wasting their time uncovering scams by rich people, say) will have a good time online.

    The problem, as I see it, is that income tax collection in the real world is made possible by extensive laws, customs and tracking mechanisms that just barely work. In made-up online worlds, where normal law hardly applies, it will be much easier to set up tax dodges, gray markets, money-laundering operations, and other mechanisms to make the value of money hard to track or count. And I'm sure the people who program these games will help the players to hide wealth, perhaps even to the extent that these games become a way to hide real world wealth from taxes.

    I look forward to a tax evasion case in which the IRS insists that to some extent, the online game is governed by real world laws and therefore taxes are due on wealth; but in certain other respects, the game is fantastical and the defendant is not entitled to a depreciation credit for his middle-earth mithril/silver mine, or his support of, oh, say, an asylum for homeless orphan dwarves. Stay tuned for the ridiculous...

    Monday, November 06, 2006

    Blueberries on Cape Cod:

    One summer in my teen years, my family rented a lightly furnished place in Cape Cod for two weeks by a beach. We swam, played in the sand, hunted shells and wandered way out on the sand flats. My parents talked to natives and friends visiting there, and time and again people praised the blueberries. They were ripe, they were delicious, there was nothing like Cape Cod Blues just now, and … whenever we asked where to go pick them, the subject mysteriously changed to other matters.

    One morning after breakfast my father gathered up pots, bowls, anything clean that looked like it could hold stuff.
    “What are you doing?” we asked.
    “We’re going to pick blueberries,” he said.
    “But Joe,” my mother said, “nobody’s told you where to find them.”
    “We’ll find them,” he said.
    We stacked all his containers in the car, hopped in and he drove off. Dad drove around for awhile, finally stopping at a sandy roadside, beyond which we could see a some shrub-filled “bottoms”.
    “This looks good,” he said.
    We got out of the car, walked past the little sandy dunes, and we were awash in blueberries, wonderful, delicious ones, far more than we could possibly eat, or pick and take home.

    Sunday, November 05, 2006

    Finger Pipelining:

    You may never worry about how pianists are able to play so many notes so fast, but trust me, this and similar issues fascinate experimental psychologists. The problem is that pianists (and fast typists, and many other kinds of skilled people) move their fingers faster than they possibly could in response to straghtforward mental motion commands. The phenomena is called "pipelining", and it's believed that our brains queue long series of commands, so that even as one finger motion is performed, the muscles are decoding the next motion and starting to perform it.

    One result of pipelining is that more typing is often faster than less. For example, you've just typed the word "distant" but you meant to type "distraught". All you have to do is erase the "an" and enter "raugh" to correct that word, but likely you'll erase the whole word and type in the new one, which will roll off your fingers faster than you could think "minus an, plus raugh".
    But if there's an intermediate change or action you need to do frequently, you can force yourself to learn your efficient shortcut, so that it becomes faster than your natural pipelined way of thinking. I found a nice application of this in the (rather long) address list on my PDA. When I want to telephone the place where I get haircuts, I look up "Mystique." The natural pipelining way to do that is to type 'm' and then scroll through a few screens of alphabetized m' entries. But with some effort, I've trained myself to look up Mystique by entering 'n', and scrolling back one line.

    Friday, November 03, 2006

    Got any counterfeit tens?

    The new US $10 bill has such an unsettled, jazzy appearance, that I doubt I'll ever notice if I'm given a counterfeit one. It has just gotten too complicated, for me anyway, to regard with care. (Ironically, Wikipedia says that the $10 was redeisgned in 1891 to make too complex to counterfeit.) Apparently it's possible to obtain "pens" that are scanners, capable of deciding whether a bill is counterfeit, and many cashiers now have them. Best to leave these issues to the silicon smarts.

    Tomato final totals: Cherry 489 (delicious!), plum 79, big girl 40.
    And there've been dozens more green tomatoes (mostly small), which taste fine when stir-fried with other foods.

    Thursday, November 02, 2006

    Close that parenthesis!

    Let me ask you, how powerful is a left parenthensis? You know what I mean, one of these: ( .

    The reason I ask is that I never leave a left parenthesis lying around, nor a left bracket, a left widget or a left curly brace. I close them all, typing, sooner or later, the corresponding ) (ahhh, that's better). My compulsion might have to do with my many years of computer programming, in which unbalanced parentheses often reflect the presence of a nasty problem.

    The reason I bring this up is that I have a keyboardless PDA, one of those devices that proposes to recognize my handwriting when I write notes. Now I do not rely on handwriting recognizion, using instead a lovely open source onscreen keyboard called MessageEase. But still, it's a lot more effort to do punctuation, and I'd like to type notes that are as short as possible, like this appointment:
    11:00 Hairct @ mystiq (Jamie again

    The parenthetical part of that note reminds me who's scheduled to cut my hair. There's no need to close that parenthesis, is there? So why do I always add a right paren at the end?
    ) ahhhhhhh.

    Wednesday, November 01, 2006

    Urbanization in the exurbs:

    For many years, the blinking traffic lights on the main street of my home town have been a discreet, pleasing indicator that we do not live in a despicably built-up area. Our town lost much forest land in the last forty years, and traffic is ever more a problem. But our local lives are touched by little reminders that we live a slightly slower, quieter, more friendly life than our town-mouse relatives.

    To see these blinking traffic lights, you must be up very late or very early. These are normal traffic signals from about 6 a.m. to the following 2 a.m. I've been very aware of them Tuesdays, as I cross the main drag at about 5:45 a.m. on the way to broadcast my radio program.

    But recently the lights were reprogrammed, and they're normal twenty-four hours a day, no more blinking red and yellow. Urbanization creeps ...

    Monday, October 30, 2006

    "My name is Rachel Corrie and I ..."

    Several times yesterday I heard a fine, affecting ad for the play, My Name is Rachel Corrie. The ad includes a short speech by director/writer Alan Rickman, an admiring quote from a prominent review, and ends something like this: "My name is Rachel Corrie is now playing at the so and so theater on such street in ..."

    Now please forgive me, because this is really awful, but it IS the end of a politically fractious October, and I was really expecting to hear the ad end like this: "My name is Rachel Corrie and I approved this advertisement."

    Sunday, October 29, 2006

    Would You (8) open an email from someone named:

    Would You open an email from someone named:
    Meatball Speculation

    And would you open an email with this subject line:
    This is going to Expolad
    magnetic tape effeminate
    reptilian life
    fungal fulfilled

    And would you seek the "Universtiy degree you've always wanted"
    from someone named:

    Friday, October 27, 2006

    Surprise Trout!

    My uncle was walking home from the subway, a five minute stroll through a rundown West Side Manhattan neighborhood. As he passed a musician lugging a bass fiddle in the opposite direction, he said to himself, “My wife’s planning a surprise birthday party for me!” His birthday came the following week, so he soon found out he was right. Here’s how he reasoned, quite correctly:
    What’s a bass fiddle player doing in this neighborhood?
    He might be rehearsing with my wife. [His wife was a fine accompanist and chamber music player.]
    Hmmm, my favorite piece, Schubert’s Trout Quintet, uses a bass fiddle.
    Why didn’t my wife say anything about this?
    It’s my birthday next week, she’s planning to surprise me with a performance of the Trout!

    Thursday, October 26, 2006

    Grape Leaves!

    I’ve always thought of grape leaves as a professionals-only ingredient that must be stuffed in some time-consuming, precise fashion. But recently I bought a bottle of ordinary grape leaves, preserved in an acidular (citrusy) liquid. (My brand is: Baktat.) I’ve been adding them to my cooked vegetable dishes. They are very easy to work with, you can cook them as much or as little as you like, and they add depth and fascination to a dish in their own unique way. Try them. Grape Leaves!

    Wednesday, October 25, 2006

    Maintenance costs - plummeting like memory:

    In the 1970's and 1980's, there was a rule of thumb about maintenance for electronic devices: you should expect to pay about 1% of the list price per month on support and repair costs. You could do that regularly via a maintenance contract, or you could take your chances and pay the same in occasional catastrophic repairs. Here's a simple application of this rule, in a conversation that was typical for those times:

    "Wow! They're remaindering a Line Printer that cost $50,000 for $500. Should I buy it?"
    "Well that remainder price is cheap, but you should expect to spend about $400 per month to maintain it. Can you afford the maintenance cost?"
    "No, I guess not."

    Today we expect a lot of hardware to last for years, maintenance free. Everyone has a shock-story about a product that really let them down, but the relative lack of tubes, wires, hand-soldering, overly complex boards and moving parts has changed the face of maintenance, and the normal cost has plummeted.

    I know you appreciate not having to pay ten cents for every memory bit you own. Now think about how maintenance has gotten astronomically cheaper too.

    Monday, October 23, 2006

    Let the deep pocket fix it!

    You know how it is when some stupid law is passed, and you look around in hopes of finding some group that's wounded enough, or rich enough, to try to fix it? Well time may have come for our stupid expansion of the patent system. We have far-too-basic software patents, and now we even have patents of "business methods." A few years ago somebody decided that methods of filing taxes are business methods, and some of them have been patented. So we now have a ridiculous situation that will affect many of the richest and greediest US cits. Maybe they'll pull a few lobbyists out of their pockets to make some law changes about patents.

    Patenting methods of filing taxes means that you might come up with a neat, legal tax shelter. But a few years later, someone with a patent on creating that tax shelter sues you for all your money gains. Or they might even sue to force you to stop using your tax shelter.

    Some overly simple examples illustrate how silly this can be:

    • Shortly after the income tax system becomes law, somebody patents the idea of declaring dependants for a deduction. Now the US law INTENDED to give everyone this benefit, but instead it would be controlled at the whim of the patent holder.

    • Someone with a patent on saving taxes by setting up a 401-K forces you to break your 401-k and withdraw your money. They don't care if that will increase your tax liability. They just don't feel like licensing the right to use a 401-k, to you.

    Hey, Rich People: Go stop those "business method" patents!

    Sunday, October 22, 2006

    Black Jack Memories:

    Many years ago I attended a three-day conference on statistical modeling in Las Vegas. I prepared for this conference by learning how to count cards. After spending about six hours watching people play black jack, I played, finishing exactly one dollar ahead after eight hours of play. The fascinating part was watching other people.
    I watched them simply throw $25 chips away on terrible bets. I could not imagine these people's relationship to their money.

    I watched a crooked dealer at a $1 dollar game. He would pretend to shuffle but actually slide the halves of the deck together unshuffled. The players, mostly middle-aged women, chatted among themselves and seemed not to notice. It struck me that I would never have the nerve to report him to anybody. Vegas! (Who knows who might be in on the scheme.) I watched a $10 chip game where four players were doing well. The pit boss replaced the dealer - a young woman - with a hatchet-faced man in his forties. The first hand, all the players got high hands but the dealer got a blackjack and won. He dealt himself a winning twenty in the next hand. The players all got up and walked off to play at other tables.

    Friday, October 20, 2006

    Supertax Me:

    A certain Martin B. Schmidt, a professor of Economics at the College of William & Mary, has written an Op Ed piece for the New York Times called SuperTax Me. In the column, he proposes to eliminate part of the American obesity epidemic caused by fast food. His idea is to TAX fast food, raising its cost to the point where it will be consumed less often. Now I'm not sure he isn't joking, but my first reaction to his proposal was simply: instinct tells me it's a bad idea. But then I realized: it's GOT to be a bad idea, because I have a much better one! Here's the best way to raise the cost of fast food:

    First, we want the federal government to pass a law requiring all states to design two-page forms that every person who attends a fast food joint must fill out. (Unfunded federal mandates are always the way to go, aren't they?) The law will require these forms to be no less complex than a typical tax form. People will think twice about running to MacDonald's when faced, once again, with questions about why they are buying this food, how many calories they expect to consume, what percentage of their income they expect to spend, what percentage of their vehicle's life possibly remains, etc. The filled-out forms will be entered into databases for future analysis by Professor Schmidt and his colleagues.

    Filling out the forms falsely will of course be a felony, so eventually we'll get some of those fast-food gorgers behind bars where we can really control their calory intake. I think that ought to do it.

    Update: Professor Schmidt asks me to clarify that his piece did not address the relative merits of fast food. Rather, he focused on the simple equation of calories in versus calories out, noting that those who "drive through" to pick up their food expend fewer calories than those who walk into the restaurant. Now I personally DO address the merits of fast food, and consequently I suggested requiring all fast food purchasers to fill out my suggested questionnaire. But it would have been more in the spirit of professor Schmidt's op-ed column, had I merey required hanging the questionnaire at the drive in window.

    Thursday, October 19, 2006

    A sign you’ll be happy to ignore:

    Picture this: you’re driving about 10 mph over the speed limit on a high speed road in a dense, dense fog. Big signs materialize from the fog; you have about a second to read each one. A sign flashes by that says: “Speed Limit enforced from Aircraft.” I think we can ignore this one, don’t you? Yes, I know we should slow down.

    Wednesday, October 18, 2006

    AT&T War Story #7:

    In 1984, AT&T formed a computer division, intending to become one of the top hardware and software vendors in no time. AT&T already built computers (somewhat special purpose ones, as phone system controllers). All they needed was a little repurposing. Oh, and they also needed some software products to sell. Soon the computer division had hundreds of product managers, tasked to do anything, anything, to get new products out the door.

    The computer division had plenty of money to spend, but that money was rarely in the budgets of people who needed it. And money had to be spent fast, to create new products or – much more often – to rebrand existing products as AT&T “me too" products. The managers who had to get outside companies to work for them had little authority of their own. They also dreaded going through AT&T’s “contract process”, wherein some fuddy-duddy with no sense of urgency would hold them up until each contract looked just right. To make matters worse, A&T had an official policy about how to set up an emergency budget. I’ve read this policy – it was a five hundred page notebook – and it typically took about eight months to approve an emergency budget. So what’s a manager to do?

    Someone, somewhere came up with a solution that spread like an “idea virus” throughout the division: the Letter of Intent. In such a letter, the manager writes to a vendor ordering some work, and states that “AT&T intends to pay for this work.” There’s no contract, but most companies were willing to gamble that AT&T would stand behind the “intent” statement. I wrote a letter of intent myself for AT&T in 1985 to commission $20,000 of work for a convention demo.

    It was particularly egregious for me to write a letter of intent, as I was not even an employee. I knew that “everyone was doing it”, but I also knew that, officially, AT&T only allowed a few people to make such commitments.

    Now here’s the interesting part of the story. In about July 1985, after about 14 months and hundreds of letters of intent, upper management discovered what had been going on. We all got a memo explaining, in the strongest possible terms, that there would be NO MORE LETTERS OF INTENT. Every manager was to render an accounting of all such letters sent, because AT&T intended to honor every one of them, and the company wished to assess its liability. Of course it took more than a year for AT&T to find out what they owed via those letters. Managers had quit after sending them; other managers had no idea whom they’d made commitments to. And the bills for “intent” work just kept rolling in.

    Since then I’ve always remembered the power of a Letter of Intent. Who knows when I might want to send, or to receive one?

    Tuesday, October 17, 2006

    Another good podcast: Griddlecakes:

    At Griddlecakes, Ron is an excellent storyteller. (And he’s usually assisted by that other “Ron”, a voice in his head.) He has a fine way with words, exemplified by his decision to call his podcasts “Griddlesodes”. As an introduction, I recommend the brief 18th episode, in which he discusses the difference between radio and podcasting. His examples are off the wall, laugh out loud surprises, not anything you might expect.

    Monday, October 16, 2006

    Reverse Lob that Taser:

    This item's from News of the Weird. G2 Consulting, an Arizona company, has created a polyester fabric that neutralizes shots from a Taser gun, basically forming an electric loop on the cloth and sending the charge back into the gun. G2 Consulting Co.'s Thor Shield is now marketed only to law enforcement and military agencies, for their own personnel to wear. I'm sure that criminals will never get their hands on this stuff.

    Oh, if you're wondering why the world needs ThorShield ... probably has something to do with the fact that criminals have gotten their hands on Tasers, something that was never ever going to happen. And criminals will never get hold of this wearable power suit either.

    Sunday, October 15, 2006

    Yet another Sports Malaprop:

    I follow sports just enough to hear my fair share of dreadful malaprops. Here's a new one:
    "... Leftwich has total control of what he wants to do with the football."

    Okay, let's see what that means. I personally DON'T have total control of what I want to do with a football. I know this, because I remember a game where I really wanted to throw the ball to my tallest receiver, but at the last moment, I succumbed to an urge to throw to my fastest receiver instead.

    Friday, October 13, 2006

    Mike Myers is ubiquitous. To me, anyway.

    This story is yet another example of my mind playing a trick on myself, a wonderful way to keep one amused:
    Several people walked down a hall past me, deep in discussion, and I heard one of them mention "The Austin Powers of Google." It took me a whole minute to realize what he'd really said.

    Thursday, October 12, 2006

    How bad was my back pain ...

    Occasionally a muscle in my back spasms tight, causes pain, and it takes about a week for me to get the muscle loose and recover from the resulting inflammation. But recently I had a really bad back spasm. I was telling myself that I USED to have spasms this bad, but I really hadn't experienced such a one for fifteen years or more. Was I right? You be the judge:

    When your back is bad, there are a bunch of things you can do to help it. I immediately remembered Exercise #1, which is to lie on your belly for ten minutes. (That exercise was hard for physical therapists to discover, because lying down that way makes your back feel worse and worse for about five minutes, as your disks gradually move to a better position; but then you start to feel much less pain and your back is now better aligned.)

    After ten minutes it was time to stand up. Holy Moley, how do I do that? I had forgotten how hard it is to get up off the floor when almost every strength move or body shift makes you hurt worse. I was lying in the empty middle of a room. I slowly slithered to the nearest chair, grasped it and levered myself up. In fifteen years I'd forgotten to do Exercise #1 right next to a chair.

    Specialization in Gas Jockeys:

    My car has a slow oil leak, and on a recent Sunday I just had to get a few quick quarts of oil. I also needed gas (and I was in a hurry) so I figured I’d stop at one of the usual places, and while filling up I’d say, “and also check the oil, I think I need a quart.”

    I’ve done exactly that many times in the past, and I can’t count the number of times a gas jockey has first offered to check the oil for me. (I usually decline unless I feel like standing next to him, watching like a hawk and making sure he doesn’t create a need for maintenance.) So I was just floored by the guy’s response when I asked him to check my oil:

    ”Sorry, the mechanic’s not here today. I don’t know how to check the oil.” Now I’d happily go on a rant about how civilization’s becoming overspecialized, if only I knew how to change the oil myself.

    Tuesday, October 10, 2006

    Gas Prices? Chicken Prices?

    Brandon Hansen, the OmniNerd, has a rather technical article suggesting that shopping around for better gasoline prices is a relatively poor way to save money. He suspects that we hurt for better gas prices because gasoline pricing is so "in your face." But shopping for cheaper food, produce and drugs will save more money with less effort. Okay, let's imagine that as we drive around, we see gigantic signs advertizing: "Chicken, $0.699/pound".

    Monday, October 09, 2006

    The Invisible Floating Metal Shard:

    I'm sure you remember the essay I wrote on August 6, in which my attempts to communicate wih my mp3 player's poker-faced ON button metamorphosed into a metaphor of meaning for the entire universe. In brief, I sometimes needed up to sixteen attempts to turn my player on. But extensive experiments and philosophizing enabled me to discover that I could get it on within TWO tries, by pressing only the left edge of the ON button. And I reported this with great glee.

    So I was far too ashamed to admit that as soon as I published this essay, my edge-pressing technique failed. Not an utter failure mind you, but certainly a sobering one. Usually I got the player on in two tries, but it might take four, six or ten. Keeping this tradgedy to myself, I worked furiously to develop a new attack on the player. I felt like a doctor diagnosing among complex diseases on the basis of one vague symptom. I was a "Doctor House" of sick technology, perhaps. But now that I can turn my player on in at most three tries, I'm ready once again to talk about it.

    My theory is that under the ON button there's piece of loose metal that the has to be pushed when that button is pressed. That loose piece might, at any time, be to the left, the right, or the center of the button. So if pressing the left edge of the ON button fails, I press the right or its center. I have no idea whether this bit of metal exists, as I have never taken the player apart. (A hardware-astute friend says that what I'm calling a metal shard might be a loose rubber gasket.) But its nominal existence seems to be just what I need to posit, to know how to turn the player on.

    If my new method fails, I'll let you know. Eventually.

    Sunday, October 08, 2006

    Microsoft to take over virus checking?

    Several of the big anti-virus companies are complaining that Microsoft's next operating system, VISTA, will prevent them from doing their job. Microsoft will apparently provide its own anti-virus software. But the other companies say that VISTA will not allow them to "hook in" deep enough to provide decent, third party anti-virus protection.

    I have two strong opinions in this matter, and - strangely - they are in direct conflict with each other. Here they are, for your reading pleasure:
    1. YES! Anti-virus software belongs in the operating system, and - hurray! - Microsoft is finally going to put it there. There have been several sad cases in the past where whole industries sprang up to fill a hole in Windows, which Microsoft later squashed by adding their own similar software. But this case is special The best anti-virus protection should be built hand in hand with the OS, and Microsoft's doing the right thing.

    2. NO! After the other anti-virus vendors fade away, we'll have just one - Microsoft. They'll be a sitting duck for the virus writers in this world, and any hole found in Vista's code will be exploitable on EVERYBODY'S system. We're better off now, where a virus that beats Symantec fails against Zone Alarm, etc. And we're MUCH better off paying all these companies to research better virus checking, than trusting all the responsibility to fewer heads and a single culture at Microsoft.

    I'm afraid my point #2 trumps my point #1. Very afraid.

    Update:Sandi Hardmeier argues well here that the road to Security involves keeping anti-virus companies out of the Windows Kernel. So if my point #1 should trump point #2, I think we still need a way to allow other companies to insert contrasting types of anti-virus software into VISTA, even if Microsoft gets to act as the arbitrary gatekeeper about what to allow in.

    Thursday, October 05, 2006

    Baseball again: two runners out at home.

    An amazing, unusual thing happened in the Met's playoff game last night. Two Los Angeles runners were heading to home plate, about forty feet apart, and Valentin, the Met's excellent catcher, tagged them both out. If you want to know how this unusual situation arose, please read the papers or catch some sports commentators on TV. But none of these sources will tell you the most amazing part of this play, so I'm going to explain it to you right here.

    The basic situation is that the batter hit the ball against the right field wall, and the right fielder threw it back toward home. Meanwhile, a slow runner on second and a fast runner from first were heading home. Valentin is looking to his right, where the thrown baseball is coming from. He's not allowed to block home plate until he actually holds the ball, so he's a little to the right of home plate. He knows a runner is coming home. The moment he catches the ball, he spins to his left - and there's the runner coming to him - and he tags the runner out.

    Now picture the important part. In making this tag, Valentin has spun around so that he's facing the stands behind home plate. If he just stood there feeling good for one second, the other runner would score. But he's a smart player. He knows there are two other runners on the bases, and who knows what they're up to. So he immediately spins back around and looks at the field and - you can see he's surprised - here comes another runner whom he tags out.

    That second out looked so easy that the commentators were struggling to explain why that runner tried to score. But it was Valentin's "smarts" that made the runner look bad. Many another catcher would have relaxed after that first out and never caught the second runner.

    By the way, suppose those two runners had approached home plate just a few feet apart? What might have happened? (The more you know about baseball's arcane "interference" rules, the more fascinating this question gets.)

    Wednesday, October 04, 2006

    Big Brother is Tracking you ...

    You probably realize that in order for your cell phone to work, computers are tracking your location all the time the phone is on. (Apparently there has been a criminal case in which a defendant turned his cell phone off for awhile, and this was taken as evidence he was trying to hide.) Do you think it's creepy to have cellphone computers tracking you? Well let me give you some perspective.

    About fifteen years ago (I'm not sure of the date), researchers at Xerox Parc announced they had developed a phone system that followed people around their labs. Everyone carried an ID card that was detected by monitors in the buildings, and as someone put it, "If you're walking down a hallway and a phone rings near you, you should answer it; it's for you!"

    I talked to many people about thts idea of being tracked so that a phone system could find you, and almost everyone reacted the same way. It was creepy; they didn't want any computer system to know how they were spending their time; it wasn't worth the loss of privacy to be able to get your phone calls.

    That was then; the cellphone network is now. (For that matter, what the cellphone network does, is not quite the same as what Xerox Parc's computers were doing.) But why have our attidudes changed so much?

    "Data is the pollution of the 21st century"

    "Data is the pollution of the 21st century" is an epigram that security expert Bruce Schneier uttered recently. He explains that every action we take tends to cause someone to log info about us, and this tendency - and the amount of data logged - will increase, whether we are looking at the web, moving about, using a cell phone or buying things (et cetera). And, he says, "we have no idea how to dispose of this data safely."

    Tuesday, October 03, 2006

    In Vista, Microsoft tries to solve one of my most painful problems!

    Last May 15, 2005, I whined about really awful "message boxes", which ask you a complicated question and then invite you to answer by clicking YES or NO. You can spend a lot of time deciding which answer means what action. A Microsoft Vista developer recently offered this example:
    Do you want to save your work or lose it forever?"
    And now you have to decide whether to click YES or NO.

    This problem is endemic to all current operating systems and web pages, because programmer laziness or the software API makes it much, much too easy to ask a YES/NO question. In Vista (and maybe even, somehow, in XP), it will be easy (see the web page I linked to above) to compose message boxes with buttons labeled like these:

    • Save your work, keep changes.

    • Discard your work, lose your changes forever.

    I can't tell you how delighted this makes me, except for one minor detail: Microsoft deprecates this feature, warning that "This function is available through Microsoft Windows XPA Service Pack 2 (SP2) and Windows Server 2003. It might be altered or unavailable in subsequent versions of Windows."

    Monday, October 02, 2006

    Do not put a banana in a CD jewel case:

    Do not try to put a banana in a CD jewel case. Do place a banana and a CD jewel case close together, tempting them to try this stunt by themselves. I'm warning you about this only because I've discovered that it can be done. Details are not available upon request.

    Sunday, October 01, 2006

    A little philosophy about learning:

    I've always been good at learning from other's mistakes. In fact much of what I do right, I learned by not doing what others do wrong.

    But I'm not bragging about this. When you associate with people who do things spectacularly right, and learn from them, you learn faster, better and deeper. If that's how YOU learn, you've got something to brag about.

    Lifetime Achievement Podcast award:

    Today we proudly announce that the Nobodies Podcast has received the "Precision Blogging Not safe For Work but Otherwise High Quality Lifetime Podcasting Achievement Award." This is the only award we will be announcing this year. (You can refer to this award as the NSFWOHQLPAA when pressed for time.) Here's their RSS Feed.

    Friday, September 29, 2006

    Haunted by an old exercise room:

    In the mid 1990's, the company I worked at floated some stock and was able to carefully design the "just perfect" offices for themselves and move into them. (C. Northcote Parkinson has a law about this that I discussed last March 6, and yes, that company was then dying from within even as it moved.)

    The director of engineering was a runner and felt very strongly about physical fitness in the office. He arranged for our new building to have a "gym", a large room with mats, weightlifting equipment, a treadmill and an exercycle. I was of course far too busy programming to use any of this equipment, but I passed the room frequently as I walked about the building, and I knew - as did everyone else - that the room was virtually unused. Eventually the equipment disappeared, and it became a meeting room.

    Many years have passed since then, and now I can only ask myself: what could I possibly have been doing at that company that was more important than using the exercise room?

    Friday, September 08, 2006

    The ABCs of Product Serial Numbers!

    There’s a lot of buzz right now about how people are RECHECKING their battery serial numbers at the Dell web site and discovering, after changing zeroes to “ohs” and ones to “ells” (or vice versa) that their battery IS a fire hazard. (I’ve rechecked my batteries for ohs and zeroes but I still have to recheck AGAIN for ones and ells.) In discussing this matter - here’s an example - everyone seems to assume that figuring out what’s a digit and what’s a letter is OUR problem. That infuriates me! It’s Dell and Sony’s problem. Here are the ABCs of product serial numbers, which both companies seem to have blithely ignored:

    1. If serial numbers must use all ten digits, they must NEVER use ells, esses and ohs. Period.

    2. If companies stupidly persist in ignoring rule one above, then serial numbers must be set up so that each character, by position, HAS to be a digit or a letter. That way a data entry program that validates serial numbers can prevent you from entering the wrong symbol. (E.g.: “The third character MUST be a letter. You entered a digit. Please correct this character.”)

    3. If companies astoundingly persist in ignoring rules one and two above, their programs that search the data base of serial numbers should automatically search for all possibilities! For example if I enter 012345, they should search for 012345, O12345, 0l2345, Ol2345, 01234S, O1234S, 0l234S and Ol234S. (See how hard it is to tell them apart?)

    4. If companies dumbheadedly persist in ignoring rules one, two and three above, they can still go to great lengths to make sure we know how to distinguish these symbols in the serial number before we type something in.

    NOTE: Currently at the Dell battery web site, they provide this wonderful advice:
    Common errors include distinguishing between alphanumeric characters:
    · letter "O" from the number "0"
    · letter "S" from the number "5"
    · letter "l" from the number "1"

    They then leave it to you to guess how many times you’ll have to re-enter your serial number to rule out all the possibilities. Gee thanks!

    Dell and Sony YOU figure out how to save us from zero/oh/one/ell/ess/five confusion. You made this mess, you clean it up!

    (The Precision Blogger will now resume his scheduled hiatus. Sorry, but this topical issue was too important to ignore.)

    Wednesday, September 06, 2006

    Pluto at its best ..

    I'm not blogging, but please check out James Lileks' wonderful column about Pluto.

    Backyard tomatoes harvested so far: Cherry, 467. Plum, 70. Big, 28.

    Saturday, September 02, 2006


    I'm going to take September off this year. I hope to have lots to say next month. My next post will probably be on October first. Meanwhile, I'll occasionally post to my other blog at realIdSucks. Take care, everyone!

    Thursday, August 31, 2006

    Buy a Dremel Drill for Halloween:

    Halloween's only a few months away, and I know you hate to cut up pumpkins the old-fashioned way, so it's tme to buy a Dremel drill. Dremel sells a special kit for pumpkins. Here's what the drill looks like. And here's their design art for drilling a spider web into your pumkpin! For more "how to" info, I suggest you check an artcie at the eHow website. (Unlike last Monday's post, I didn't make this up.)

    Tuesday, August 29, 2006

    I'll bet you ...

    I bet you can remember a time that you and a few other people got into a violent argument about something that could be resolved in a minute by checking a reference book. Somehow if you're unable to look a fact up, people can argue about what it MUST be for hours. Now these days, when the Internet is a wireless connection away, many of these arguments CAN be stopped with a quick call to the web. But many years ago I found another way to stop these pointless arguments, and I actually used my idea a few times.

    Suppose some people in our group are arguing about who hit the most career home runs, Mays or Mantle. The Mantle proponent is arguing, loud and long, that Mantle HAD to hit more home runs because he was a switch hitter. I'm sure Mays is the one, so I say to the Mantle guy, “I'll bet you $25 that Mays hit more homers. We can look it up when we get home.”
    Now that stops the argument because real money's involved, and we all know, really, how to find the answer to settle the bet. So we all stop reasoning in a vacuum.

    Just recently I realized that my discovery of this tactic wasn't nearly as original as I'd thought. One of the pleasures of growing older is that some childhood memories come back in greater strength, and now I can remember my eleven year old friend Marty saying earnestly, in many arguments of this sort, “I'll bet you ANY 'MOUNT O' MONEY that I'm right!”

    Monday, August 28, 2006

    The US Congress will reinstate Pluto as a planet!

    One of the great curses of modern times is that people who are old enough and wise enough to be elected to congress are hopelessly behind in science and technology. They don't get it and they make bad laws about it, and we have to live with the painful results. But this is too much! One Senator, with the key committee appointments to enable him to practically pass a law single-handed, has decided to make American astronomers force the International Astronomical Union to re-declare Pluto a planet.

    ”Changing our minds about Pluto aids Terrorism!” opined the senator. “Those Islam fanatics KNOW what to believe: whatever the Koran says, that's true. When they see our scientists being wishy-washy about Pluto, they won't respect our science or our technological military. They won't fear our bombs, our nerve gases, our antimissile systems. They'll just come at us!”
    The senator's “incentive” is to block all federal support for anything related to astronomy until American astronomers bring the IAU to its knees on Pluto. Of all the stupid ideas ...

    Important Update: The senator says we should still support the space station, so he will exempt those funds from his boycott. That means that 99.7% of federal astronomy funds will be exempted from his ban, but the other 0.3% are definitely blocked until Pluto is reinstated. (A Disney spokesperson said that Disney has not yet decided how to support the boycott.)

    Sunday, August 27, 2006

    Dream, Dream, ... Automobile!

    In my youth I was advised that – as I grew older – I would develop an interest in the obituary page. But no one warned me about the Sunday New York Times Automobile section, which always leads with one or two deep, long reviews of cars. They don't discuss what my wife and I would buy: low-end sedans and small wagons. But as I read, I imagine myself behind the wheel of every one of these cars.

    Better yet, I imagine myself as a reviewer. I'm resigned to likelihood that no one will give me a million dollars, as part of a study into how people change when given a million dollars. But it's more realistic to imagine being asked, along with Michelle Krebs, Ezra Dyer and the rest of the Times considerable stable of car critics, to drive a nice car for a few months and write about it. Ah, sweet daydreams.

    Thursday, August 24, 2006

    Gustav Holst was Lucky!

    Holst wrote his lovely composition, The Planets, before Pluto was discovered. The piece has seven movements (all the known planets exept the earth), and ends with Neptune. If there had been a Pluto movement, some people wouldn't know what to do with it now, and I'll bet there would even be suggestions to play the piece without it. Lucky Holst has not been caught in any such controversy.

    Wednesday, August 23, 2006

    Computers (and their programmers) are Dumb, Dumb, Dumb!

    Computers act really dumb when their programs get into situations their programmer failed to anticipate. (And there's at least a trillion of those.) I went to Mapquest to get driving instructions to a store about 70 miles from home. Mapquest was not willing to accept the address I entered. Its message said: “We have 150 locations at that address. Please choose your location.” A list followed on the web page.
    Now you might think I could search the page for the name of the store, but no. The list of 150 stores was spread over ten web pages because, as I'm sure you know, to put them all on one page would be a terrible waste of invisible pixels. Fortunately I was able to type the store's name into a field and search again.
    Why are there “150 locations at that address?” The store is in a mall. I could have picked ANY of the 150 locations, because the driving instructions to all of them are the same! And since the driving instructions were all the same, I'm sure there was no point asking me to choose a location.

    Of course I'm being obtuse, there IS a reason to make me choose. Knowing what store I'm going to increases the value of the my search data to Mapquest. Too bad I can't charge them a nickel for wasting some of my time.

    Monday, August 21, 2006

    Another Step Down for the RIAA?

    The main reason I'm very anti-RIAA is that, in their misguided attempts to shore up their obsolete business model, they are fighting for legistation that will run up the general cost of electronics and have other adverse, unforeseen legal effects. (The DMCA is their worst exhibit to date, but look out for their "broadcast flag" and "analog hole" laws.) I won't bore you with my other reasons.

    But I am pleased to tell you about a problem I think the RIAA will face in a few years. The RIAA represents most of the major music publishers, and these publishers represent the bands whose music Apple sells to its iPod users. Apple gives a large cut of that $.99 per song to the publishers (I hope some of that gets back to the musicians). I think that from Apple's point of view, the publishers are just a middleman nuisance that owns access to the bands. Pretty soon I expect Apple to start signing up musicians on its own and cutting out the RIAA publishers. Apple can afford, I think, the investment to grow a few hit bands.

    Microsoft will be competing with Apple, in the unlikely event that their anticipated "Zune" really competes wih iPods. Both companies will like the idea of cutting csts by eliminating the music publisher middlemen. Between this battle and the development of open source music, the RIAA's influence will inevitbly weaken. I hope.

    Sunday, August 20, 2006

    Going native when visiting Los Angeles:

    We were visiting Los Angeles. Studying the restaurant listings carefully, I realized that one restaurant we really wanted to eat at was right across the street from our hotel. We walked over and ate there, but not before considering "going native." A real Los Angelan would have driven there to eat. It was, after all, a six-lane street, and the restaurant had a parking lot.

    Friday, August 18, 2006

    Classical Musicians and Cosmetic Surgery:

    I've only had a little bit of cosmetic surgery, so I feel entitled to complain about the many people who are turning to surgery to look as good as the movie stars. For starters, the movie stars don't look that good until they've been majorly airbrushed, so the whole effort can be viewed as a chase after false gods of beauty.

    But it occurred to me that something similar happened long ago in the world of classical music. I've enjoyed the results there, but from the moment I discovered that similar revolution, I've been uncomfortable about it.

    As soon as there were recordings of classical music, wrong notes on recordings seemed horribly out of place. Mid-century musicians accepted the goal of playing good classical music with almost no wrong notes. Sometime in the 1930's, musical engineers added the equivalent of the airbrush, splicing “takes” to produce note-perfect performances. And even before that, piano rolls were edited to remove wrong notes. The mid-century generation of musicians were aware that most recordings were edited, but the note-perfection they heard became their routine goal. And what could be wrong with that?

    What could be wrong is that it has become much harder to be recognized as a great musician if you play many wrong notes. That means that a good bit of humanity need not apply for the virtuoso title; it also means that some great musicians can't let themselves go emotionally for fear of finger failures; and as a result we're losing opportunities to hear some wonderful interpretations of classical music from geniuses who are not sure-fingered enough.

    As we watch some Hollywood stars' faces freeze with Botox, we must know we're losing opportunities to see them express wonderfully apt emotions. They're trying to emulate their own, airbrushed selves, and it's a shame.

    And now, for some moderate examples of touchups, try this website: Click Portfolio, agree to the disclaimer if you can, click before/after, and enjoy.

    Thursday, August 17, 2006

    It's All About Product Placement!

    Ever since M&Ms passed up a chance to be featured in the movie E.T., product placement has been an important and annoying aspect of movie profits. A movie's coming out soon that makes fun of a fast food chain, and I hope the product placement worm has turned this time. Here's how it ought to work:

    The movie producers go to the big fast food chains and explain they're making a movie that will savage the operations of a realistic-looking fast food empire. Which company will pay the most to name the chain? Let the auction begin ...
    Burger King makes big bid for the name 'MickRonalds.” But McDonalds bids higher to name the chain “Burger Prince.” Then the two companies come to their senses and combine on a bid to call the chain “Bendy's Burgers.” Let the chips fall on someone else...

    Wednesday, August 16, 2006

    In which I show my Ignorance about showers:

    Today I have a handy tip for you about adjusting the temperature of hotel/motel showers. Except that I suspect I'm the only one who needed this tip, in which case you're all welcome to laugh at me.
    It's easier to adjust the temperature of the water BEFORE pressing the little button to make the water come ouf of the shower head. The shorter and stronger flow of the water directly into the bathtub makes the water change temperature faster. And to think that all my life, I've been pressing the shower button first and then trying to adjust the temperature...

    Monday, August 14, 2006

    Back Problems or Loose Change:

    When I was much younger, I used to find a lot of money on the ground, at least $5 per year. But I had a terrible posture, part of which involved looking down while I walked. When my posture was fixed and my back healed, I no longer found cash on the ground. It was probably a good deal, since, instead of finding quarters, I avoided hundreds of dollars in bad-back medical bills. I hope you agree!

    Bruce Schneier has a good piece on the new security focus on liquids and gels. As usual, his comments are very clear.

    I enjoy posting about the silly names I find in spam letters. So does William Ridenhour, who actually composes obituaries for the likes of Sled I. Secretively, Woodcutting O. Rackets, Deadbeat F. Busybody and others.

    Sunday, August 13, 2006

    We have Tivo, but I’m watching Ads:

    Most ad spots are thirty seconds long. I do a bunch of exercises every day that are each thirty seconds long. I don’t have a thirty second timer, and I don’t like to count thirty Mississippis, but I can switch on a block of ads (called a “pod” in the TV ad biz, by the way) and change to the next exercise each time a new ad starts. There are a few pretty good ads on TV these days!

    Friday, August 11, 2006

    Coffee on the Road:

    On my most recent business trip, I took my French Press coffee maker and some fresh coffee grounds along, and made better coffee than my hotel or St*rb*cks could have supplied. I used the in-room microwave to boil water in the in-room glass coffee carafe.
    I had tried the same thing about two years ago at a rickety motel. Before I could even brew any coffee, I closed the door to my motel room, and the walls and surfaces shuddered enough at that closure to toss my French Press on the floor, where it shattered. And my Press was ten FEET from the door!

    Thursday, August 10, 2006

    I have seen the PMS Keyboard, and it is silly!

    There’s a market for keyboards with built-in track balls, to use where free-roving mice are a liability. Naturally the usual mouse buttons will be on the keyboard. How will they be labeled? They won’t have the symbols you have on your mouse buttons. (Take a look, they probably aren’t labeled at all; everybody knows what they are.) Maybe the keyboard mouse buttons should have little symbols suggesting Left, Middle, Right.

    Well the manufacturers of the keyboard I’m using had a MUCH better idea: the buttons are labeled Primary, Middle, Secondary. But those long words don’t fit on the keys, so instead we find three buttons in a row labeled P,M, S. At first, it’s not obvious what these keys do, and the accidental acronym is ridiculous. (And by the way, to make these buttons easier on the fingers, there are TWO sets of them: on the right side of the keyboard, and ... on the right side of the keyboard.) I won’t mention the manufacturer’s name.

    Wednesday, August 09, 2006

    Strange typo, strange grammar:

    The New York Times committed a typo when it wrote (yesterday) about how Sooty Shearwater birds fly a 40,000 miles around the Pacific each year. Obviously there's something wrong with "a 40,000 miles" in the last sentence. We could fix the NYT's typo like this: ... Sooty Shearwater birds fly a good 40,000 miles around the Pacific each year.

    "A good 40,000 miles" is decent, idiomatic English. But whatever the word "a" is doing in that idiom, it SHOULD perform the same function even when the word "good" isn't there. Shouldn't it?

    Monday, August 07, 2006

    Bothersome Side Effects from Congestion Medicine:

    I suffer nasty side effects when I take medicine for congestion. If you suffer similarly - I KNOW I'm not alone on this - and you want to take such medicines anyway (I certainly do), try this: Greatly Lower the Dosage. For example, if you're supposed to take two pills every four hours, take one every eight. (This doesn't work very well with 24-hour pills, I'm afraid.)

    The theory is simple: If the side effects affect you much more strongly than they're supposed to, maybe the same holds true for the intended effects.
    Obligatory disclaimer: IANAD, IANAPh, IANAH, IANAA, in fact, IANAx, where 'x' might be almost anything.

    Sunday, August 06, 2006

    Everything of Importance …

    This blog entry is about everything of importance: Man’s search for God, the ever-rising tide of civilization and technology, failure to communicate, constancy in relationships and so on. Please bear all that in mind while I discuss the ON button of my mp3 player.

    My mp3 player is old, but I’m nursing it as far as I can, hoping that its replacement will be ever so much better in the far-as-possible future. Actually I almost gave up on it months ago, but I discovered I could download a new Open Source user interface that made it much better. And then, the player started failing to turn on.

    When I press the tiny ON button, a little light goes green and then the screen lights up, and soon the player is playing. But I would press that ON button, the little light would go on, and … nothing. So I would press OFF to turn the light off, then hit ON again. Usually the player comes up fine in one of the first four tries, but I’ve turned it on sixteen times to get it to come up. It’s frustrating, time wasting and even a bit terrifying when the thing fails to respond.

    Now I’m getting no feedback from the player about what ails it. No beeps, no flashes, no hums. It’s just a question of whether the screen will start working. But I can’t settle for pressing ON sixteen times, every ten seconds, can I? So I’ve got to find a way to make it run better. My first idea was that the LENGTH of time I pressed the ON button would make a difference. I tried a pattern: press ON for a long time; try that again; try a brief press; try a long press. And with that pattern I rarely had to go more than, oh, six tries to turn it on. Not good enough. In fact, I felt the responses to my “durational” presses were too much like random responses. Maybe.

    Next I tried to press the OFF button before pressing ON. I might press OFF quickly four times, then press ON. That seemed to work a little better. I might explain that this experimenting has been going on over a two month period. The scientific method wasn’t built in a day!

    My newest idea was to try pressing the ON button in different ways. And frankly, that's why I'm inspired to write this blog entry. Not to be proud, but just to shake my head sadly at the irresistable human imperative to try to do something about anything. I've found that using my fingernail to press the ON button at the left edge, and holding it firmly down, makes the player come up the first or second time. Of course, "First or second" means I'm still dealing with a deep, inexplicable mystery. One of these days, if I feel like a renegade, I'll try to find a better ritual.