Friday, June 30, 2006

The ideal time to fold up large tablecloths ...

The ideal time to fold up large tablecloths is right after vacuuming the rugs.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Calling All (House) Detectives:

We rarely buy a TV set, perhaps every twelve years or so. And yet I distinctly remember one trip to Macy's to look over their models. I arrived at the store around 10:30 on a weekday, so there were few people in the store. But while browsing the TVs, mostly showing an old football game, I noticed about four other shoppers browsing near me. I was pleased for Macy's that their electronics prices were good to draw so many weekday morning shoppers.
All at once we heard a message on the PA system, something like: “Trouble on the second floor in casuals!” All the other 'customers' in my department rushed to the escalator, leaving me to shop alone.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Let's see the (voluminous) evidence ...

One of the great challenges our free society faces is protecting victims against violence, while yet requiring excellent evidence to convict criminals. Rape allegations, which often become “he said, she said” cases, severely test these balanced rights.

Nicolaus B. Kristof wrote about the Duke Lacrosse case in the June 11, 2006 New York Times. (I'd like to link to his column, but I'm too late; you have to pay to see it now.) I'm sure you have read elsewhere about what's called the “CSI Effect:” Prosecutors feel that juries do not convict criminals when they feel that there should have been lots more forensic evidence, such as we always see in CSI and Law & Order cases. If you feel that people generally believe we live in a society deep in surveillance and forensic evidence, you might have been shocked by Kristof's column.

The Duke Lacrosse case seemed to require us to make a gut decsion about who was telling the truth, and many public figures, police officials and reporters rose at once to that difficult challenge. But we should have been asking: Where are the surveillance tapes? What pictures were people taking with their phone cameras? What about cell phone call records, preliminary witness statements?

For this actually was a CSI-effect case.

For example – I do not want to prejudge the case, because I know I've heard just a little of the evidence, and yet - cellphone records and timed and dated photographs taken that night seem to provide a tight alibi for one of the accused.

I think the moral of this story is that 1984 is finally here. When we consider a crime allegation, we should assume that there's surveillance and forensic data to be unearthed before we judge. If we have no privacy, at least we must have witnesses.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Ralph Kiner, Special Announcer:

I promise that - after this entry - there will be at most one more blog entry about the Mets' first baseball game, that I'm listening to on my mp3 player. Ralph Kiner announced the third and fourth innings of this game. He had become an announcer the year before, and there's some polish in his delivery. There was something really special about Kiner's announcing, which I will try to explain. (I'm also thinking about adding this info to his Wikipedia entry.)

When someone hits a flyball home run, the announcer usually calls it like this: "It's a long fly ball ... going way back there, ... way back ... it's a home run." Now I'm pretty sure the announcer is not trying to build suspense. Rather, he's trying to avoid saying something like this: "It's a long fly, a three run home run! Oops, the center fielder catches it at at the wall for the third out." In fact, the announcer initially isn't sure the ball is going out of the park, so he plays it safe.
Now Ralph Kiner hit 369 home runs, and as an outfielder he watched many more fly out of the park. He KNOWS what a home run looks like, and he tended to call them this way when the fly ball was hit: "It is gone, goodbye." No wishy washy playcalling for him.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Part of One down; 161 to go ...

I received a neat father's day present: a recording of the radio broadcast of the Mets' first baseball game in their very first season. It's a great trip down memory lane. Their opponents, the 1962 St. Louis Cardinals, appeared to have a murderous lineup but finished sixth that year. They had so many players I admired or really liked that it's hard to root against them: Stan Musial, Minnie Minoso, Ken Boyer, Bill White and so on.
The broadcast begins with some horribly retro ads for beer and cigarettes. These are "High quality" cigs; and by the way the announcer says you should start drinking beer when the game begins. The Mets' announcer is Bob Murphy, the voice of the Mets for more than thirty subsequent years. (I always felt he was a terrible announcer, but most other baseball announcers I've heard are even worse.)

The game begins with Roger Craig pitching very well but giving up two runs in what should have been a "four up, three down" inning. You can tell, even though this is strictly audio, that three defensive lapses led to those Cardinal runs. This episode sets the tone for the Mets' first season, where a porous defense gave pitchers no where to hide. I think the Mets would have done better to build a "noname, good defense" club even if they couldn't hit. They would have lost fewer games, and their pitchers might have developed. But the prevailing view at the time was that home run hitters and aging stars were needed to fill the stands, and those were the guys not making the plays.
Early in the game an outfielder crashes into an infielder catching a fly. But they are Cardinals, and the infielder holds on for the out.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Get a Human (2)! (Service, Agent, Operator, ...)

Last april 17th I blogged about how you can read an online database to find out how to reach a human being at hundreds of big companies. It's a great, unfrustrating service.
This morning I called a company for which the magic word was “agent.” I have a sore throat and sound quite gravelly when congested, so as the answering system robot began its introductory message, I cleared my throat: “Ugghhm.”
“Please hold while I connect you to an agent,” the robot responded. Great!

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

A Subtle Insult to the Reader:

I've found an interesting subtlety in English. Compare these two sentences:
I like the song that begins "Du bist die blume" (in German).
I like the song (in German) that begins: "Du bist die blume".

I would not blame a reader who took offence at the first sentence. "Of course it's in German, anyone can see that!" But the second sentence is not similarly insulting, because I say "in German" before I've given the reader some German words to recognize.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Future of the Rings:

I read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings for the first time in 1959, indirectly clued in by my wife-to-be (I met her two years later). I was very excited by the books and took them to camp with me, for my very first paid counselor job. Our campers were nine-year-olds, and after about a week of listening to LotR as a bedtime story, they let me know in no uncertain terms that they wanted a real story, not this fairy-tale hobbitish stuff. I complied and switched to more standard fare.
Those campers probably have kids of their own now, maybe even grandkids, and I bet they tell them, "I learned about the Lord of the Rings in 1959!"

Sunday, June 18, 2006

“Your Pouch is unzipped:”

It was an informal extended-family social event, a number of us talking or moving about in a large kitchen, small kids, people of all ages. I absolutely froze when the Australian gent said “Your Pouch is unzipped!” I had no idea what pouch was a euphemism for Down Under, but I feared the worst. Now if this kitchen had been really full of people I could have surreptitiously dropped a hand to check for an open zipper. Or if the kitchen had been pretty empty I could have turned toward a wall and done the same. But there was just enough of a demi-crowd, all heights and sizes, that I feared any sort of quick check would look impolite. I stood there feeling helpless.

But then the same gent pointed, saying “Look it's unzipped,” drawing my attention to the little case on my belt that normally houses my PDA. I ruefully extracted the PDA from my shirt pocket, put it in the pouch, zipped it closed, and my good friend was greatly mollified.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Ohhh .......... Podcast Advertisements!

When I began listening to podcasts, part of my enjoyment came from hearing radio-like programs with nary an ad. Podcasting has traditionally been a money-losing medium looking for a way to make money. Some podcasters, feeling a desire for ad-like material to break the flow of their programs, would invite other podcasters to send self-promotions that they could mix into their podcasts.

Recently, a few of my favorite podcasters have acquired real sponsors. I don't begrudge them their ads, and I'm glad to hear them. I'm glad they can make a little money in this business, because I know from their podcasts that some of them are barely able to make ends meet. I've even heard one podcast ad that had an ad-within-the-ad! The speaker was promoting a certain website, and suddenly, talking faster, described how we could get a desireable cellphone for free by signing up for a two year network deal.

So now we have podcasts ads. "What next?" you ask. (Well, I doubt you asked that, but really, you should have.) Obviously the next step is for audio players to include the ability to skip over ads; or more specificially, to skip to the next place in the audio where an obvious splice has occurred. (That would even enable us to skip over music inserted as filler between talks. Or to skip over talk inserted as filler between songs.) Then I could happily ignore the ads again and hope that someone else was listening to them and buying the product ...

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Alien Invasions and Rubber Bands:

I should start by pointing you to a bit of SF history that is surely on the web, but I simply cannot find it. Around 1953, the editor of one of the more prestigious Sci Fi magazines (probably NOT Fantasy and Science Fiction) suggested that aliens - Martians, I think - were preparing to attack the earth, and he had stumbled over their plan to render us helpless when the attack came. He had noticed that neither he, nor any one he knew, ever had to buy rubber bands, paper clips, erasers, paper pads, etc. These things were just available whenever needed. Since he had no idea where they were coming from, he "realized" they were being supplied by Martians whose plan was to dry up the supply shortly before they attacked. Every defense force relies upon office supplies to get its job done, and suddenly there would be nothing to write on or with. That was the plan.

A few months later, the same editor issued a retraction. He had heard from many angry souls whose refrain was that they were always buying these things but for some reason the supplies always ran out before they had a chane to use them. He concluded that there might not be an imminent alien attack, but instead he had discovered there were two kinds of people ...

It is the supply of rubber bands in our kitchen that often reminds me of these editorials. We hardly ever buy bands, relying on our postman and the packaging of vegetables to build up our own supply. We have a few specific places to store our supply, and the facinating thing is that the little heap waxes and wanes. Every few months there's hardly a band left. At these times I make a mental decision that by gosh the supply is going to increase, and that's exactly what happens, with perhaps fifty rubber bands of various sizes stacked up a month later.
I cannot quite understand how my intention causes the bands to aggregate, although I suspect that:

  • I use them less wastefully.
  • I throw NONE away.
  • I look everywhere for bands to add to my collection...

Still, it's a bit of a mystery, and I'm sure it has something to do with the Martians.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Ghost of a Parrot:

A parrot used to live in a house near us, a house heavily shaded by front-yard trees. The parrot was a fine mimic but was known to be extremely shy; it would not utter a word if it knew it was being watched. Occasionally I caught a glimpse of the silent bird on the screen-in front porch, but mostly I walked by trying to appear oblivious, listening carefully for its startling sounds. Its owner used to take it to work at the local auto body shop where the bird, perched in a very public place, never uttered a word. Consequently it learned to imitate the shop's owner's voice saying "That damn bird can't talk!"

Recently I've been hearing similar sounds at this house again. I risked a glimpse through the trees to spy - merely - a lady of rather uncertain age speaking loudly into her cellphone.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

I cut myself changing a lightbulb ...

Do you worry about cutting yourself when changing a lightbulb? I do, partciularly because of the risk (I assume) of chemically treated glass particles. When I find it hard to unscrew a lightbulb, I usually put on an oven mitt before placing any squeeze pressure on the bulb to turn it.

Our home came with a chandelier that takes eight 40 watt "flame tip" bulbs. Today a bulb went dead, so I took a replacement out of its bubble pack, and immediately noticed that the new bulb had something transparent stuck to it near the tip. That might be plastic from the bubble pack, which would smell awful when the bulb was lit, so I tried to flick it off with my thumb. (Stupid.) It turned out to be a glass defect. Some of the excess glass splintered in my thumb, and some extra glass remained on the outside of the bulb.

Now I worried whether this was a totally defective bulb. Was there a hole in the glass? Would it explode when turned on? I decided to throw it away at once; after all, it only cost about $1.50, so why take any risk? Having made this firm decision, I bandaged up my bleeding thumb and then inserted the bulb into the chandelier, using my non-dominant hand only, while shielding my eyes.

Whew. The bulb works fine.

Monday, June 12, 2006

How do you spell "Nerd?"

By 1960, the word Nerd had a meaning very close to its current one (perhaps a little more antagonistic in those days), but it also had an alternate spelling that, I think, has pretty much disappeared: knurd. I remember very inconclusive discussions in 1960 about the correct way to spell this word, but I suspect knurd lost out due to the utter lack of correlation between nerds and drunks.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

We do to things ...

A few days ago I expressed frustration with my floss dispenser, since bits of floss get stuck in its floss-cutter, necessitating that the floss-cutter be flossed. After rummaging about in my memory for a few days I thought of an excellent remedy for this problem, from a fake advertisement that ran in Columbia College's humor magazine, Jester, in the 1950's. The ad, in small type, proudly proclaimed “We do to things what they do to other things! We'll dry your dryer, iron your iron, wash your washing machine, etc.”
It's a pity it wasn't a real company. I'm sure they'd have been happy to floss my flosser.

Friday, June 09, 2006

A Podcast: the Bitterest Pill:

The Bitterest Pill is a podcast operated by Dan Klass, an actor / comedian /house-husband operating out of a rather strange upper middle class community in Los Angeles. I get regular Schadenfreude kicks from the stupid incidents that make Dan miserable, particularly because some of them have happened to me and made me miserable too. Recently he's been complaining about how he and his two wonderful kids become invisible to the people around them; or alternatively, conversations he starts with a neighbor suddenly halt horribly, the neighbor having nothing to say. A resonant example occurs when a few friends are complaining about how to deal with their nanny being on vacation.
“What do you do when your nanny is on vacation?” he is asked.
“We parent our own kids, we don't have a nanny,” he replies.
Now that ought to START a good conversation, but instead that ends it. His neighbor is speechless, apparently incapable of imagining such an existence. Dan rails on about this. Why? What does he have to change? Is it his bald head? Being overweight? Wearing inadequately expensive clothes?

I couldn't resist sending him a suggestion, especially since he feels that our email responses to his podcasts help to keep him from losing it: Dan, you must recognize that you're a round peg in a community of square ass-holes. The people you associate with have a bizarre life-style that needs to be wrapped in layers of self-justification to prevent its quick collapse, but you routinely threaten to puncture their protective coating. Their only protective response, beyond silence, might be: "does not compute." LA is a big place. It must have some other nice round peg souls here and there. If you can find them, you'll be glad you did.

By the way, I recommend listening to Dan Klass even if you don't feel you need a Schadenfreude hit every few days. He's well-spoken, intelligent and thoughtful, and has some interesting adventures to discuss, and original observations to make.

I'm still trying to post daily except Saturdays, sorry there have been some missed days lately. Yesterday, Blogger would not let me log in!

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Would you (7) open an email from:

Would you open an email from Breastplate C. Doom?
And would you open an email with any of these genuine titles:

  • are not
  • have use garotte
  • Real Daffodil Not Feeeble.

Monday, June 05, 2006

M.C. Escher versus Rob Gonsalves:

The DIGG website links to a page with artworks by Rob Gonsalves, suggesting he is "M.C. Escher reincarnated." I think Gonsalves is better than that. Escher created a syle of trompe l'oeil art based on mathematical shapes, forms and patterns, but he was too much of a draftsman, and his pictures tend to be emotionally cold. Gonsalves follows Escher's style, but his pictures have much more humanity, warmth and mystery. For example, see this one, or this one.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

“There was a cloud over the mouse ...”

You don't often hear someone say “There was a cloud over the mouse,” but that phrase came naturally at the recent (May) Princeton Microsoft Intellectual Property conference. At the patent session, where much of the audience expected to hear about Blackberry or other trolling patents, one panelist got up and apologized, “I'm sorry, but I'm going to talk about mice.”
“(Mice? Did he say he's going to talk about mice?)” said a small voice behind me.
And the panelist launched into a talk about how easy it used to be to get specially genetically bred mice for experiments. You just called the lab that grew them, and they sent you some.
But today, some of these mice, or their special genetics, are patented, and access to them is restricted, often by onerous licensing agreements that create “clouds over the mice.”

Thursday, June 01, 2006

My Social Security ID Number is: (not my Soc Sec #):

A letter writer to the New York Times complained today that the Social Security Administration uses his Social Security ID number in his Medicare ID. This means that all the many medical people (and pharmacy workers) who see his Medicare card have access to his soc. sec. number. Isn't that wrong?

Well we know that a short time ago it became illegal for companies in general to use your social security number to identify you (or, a hundred times worse, as your unmodifiable password code). The goal is to lower the risk of identity theft, which is too easy when all you need to steal an identity is a soc sec number. Soc sec numbers used to enable people to get driver's licenses, replacement birth certificates, access to bank accounts and many other forms of ID.

I think the goal is that your soc sec number should have one purpose: to identify your social security account. In fact if the social security administration gave us different numbers to use on our D cards, why, those would be our soc sec numbers! So I think the letter writer is sensibly concerned, but misguided. I hope we will soon see a world where the only thing a thief could do with my soc sec number is to try to get some free medical benefits.