Monday, July 31, 2006

Why do people from different countries look different?

If you're assuming that variations in genes cause most of the differences that seem to give Americans, Frenchies, Spaniards, Russians and others their characteristic looks, you're probably wrong. Our geographic boundaries have not been around long enough for gene selection to do the job. But think about language. Different languages (even dialects) require speakers to develop, to position, and to strengthen certain facial muscles at the expense of others. These facial variations enable a wide variety of physical types to "look" French or Latin (etc.), and contribute a lion's share to "national" appearance.
Here's a simple experiment. You can speak French with a better accent, more clearly and rapidly, if you extrude your lips slightly while you talk. Try it, messieurs et Mesdames! And look at pictures of the French, who often have those extruded lips.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Collected Closed Captions (2):

Writing closed captions for the deaf - for movies and TV shows - can be a very creative exercise. Consider these sensible captions:
(two coins plink)
[somber violin music]
[makes throaty sounds]
[everyone squawking] From a Monty Pyton show.
[no audible dialog] (This one occurred during a movie scene in which people are obviously conversing, but only background music can be heard.)

Friday, July 28, 2006

Here comes another Hot spell!

"There's more hot weather coming!" said the weatherman on TV. Oh hell, I thought, more hot weather.
But then I realized: I was using TiVo to replay a recent show. This was not today's weather.
But then I realized: It was a Philadelphia station. They often have different weather there.
But then I realized: It was an AD that had just briefly showed a weatherman delivering bad news.
Never mind.
But actually, it is very hot and humid here.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Snake Oil? Or more Real Oil?

It's very likely that our world has a fairly fixed amount of oil, and that we are going to use the supply up in the 21st century if we don't make major technology changes. Estimates of the amount of oil available vary quite a bit, and rely partly on assumptions about where oil actually might be, because it has been very expensive to actually look for it. A new technology promises to make finding oil a thousand times less expensive, using air flights and electromagnetic (EM) imaging. Stay tuned for new discoveries that greatly increase our estimated oil supply! Or not. The claim is made at this web site.

I used to know a chemical engineer who worked in plastics. He thought it was a sin to burn even one gallon of oil for fuel. But I must say that when you look at those dreadful tiny plastic toys that come from China and Hong Kong, you can feel there might be worse things to do with oil than burn it.

Backyard tomatoes harvested so far: Cherry, 102. Plum, 8. Big, 1. Delicious!

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Terribly Dated ...

Some books, movies and TV shows become terribly dated, boring and annoyinng, while others withstand the test of time. I believe that within ten or fifteen years, a remarkable collection of entertainments will get painfully dated due to a single invention. Let me illustrate. I was watching a procedural mystery, a TV show from the 1970's. The attorney is awaiting a call from the detective, who is waiting for a call from his father to tell him that the missing witness has called his father. All these people of course, keep checking in with each other whenever they can find a telephone.

How much of this can we bear? They all ought to have cell phones! The harder it gets to understand life without cell phones, the harder it will be to empathize with people who lived entirely without them.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Ahh, Packing List!

I have a fine packing list. For great convenience, my list is a spreadsheet on my PDA. It's easy to check items off as I pack. My list includes items I might need occasionally (passport?), and also errands to do before leaving (make sure stove is off). Whenever I'm on a trip and find I forgot to bring something, I immediately add it to the list. I'm not a very organized person, but the satisfaction this list brings impels me to keep it useful and to use it always.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

A moment of terror:

I experienced a moment of terror last Saturday. We had a wonderful dinner with friends Friday night. They brought over their outdoor grill and cooked many delicious meats just before the lightning came close and the rain poured. Saturday night, about 10 pm, I walked over to their house, just a few doors down, to bring them a plastic bag of cooked leftovers, and a plastic bag of uncooked meat we had not quite gotten to.
It was pitch dark, no moon. A man passed me on the sidewalk and I said hello to him. Then his rather large dog appeared out of the dark and passed me. Oh, he's walking his dog, I said to myself. And then it hit me. What's the dog going to do when it smells the meat? I prepared to feel wet teeth on either of my hands. Would it be the bag with the cooked meat, or - more likely - the raw?
But the dog was well-behaved. I realized it was not turning back, and so all was well.

Friday, July 21, 2006

More Languages than Horatio Dreamt of:

Last May 2, I registered my disagreement with President Bush when he opined that our national anthem ought to be sung only in English. I was thinking how nice it would be if the anthem was sung in every genuine human langiage and dialect, but on the same day, Boing Boing sailed way ahead of me. Here's their entry on the anthem in Morse code, International Morse, and binary.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Would you open an email with these subject lines (these are genuine spams):

  • influence boosted mens
  • Perish unexpectedly
  • prease go damage
  • among brethren but shook
  • Re: Megalomanias spastic
  • extremely ceased symbol
  • mnbdtdbb zzuztp
  • Dunk Bigamy If you're not sure about this one, you'd be reassured by the message, which began: "toilet, fingerprint objector"

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

More Computer Controlled Apparel:

Last Thursday's item started me thinking about the potential future of garments with embedded computers. Clothes will have a display capability, wireless communications, cameras, GPS, the works. For example, consider a lothario who tracks his two girlfriend's locations, so that his shirt says "Jennfier I Love You!" except when he's nearer to Lucy than Jennifer. It might be nice to have a shirt that appears to be the classic football T-shirt for whatever college you're nearest at the moment, or anti-chameleon clothes that change color as needed to stand out from the nearby environment. As a parent, I would have liked to press a button to make my young kids' clothes flash alternately red and green when I couldn't quickly find them.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Ought to be Illegal!

I was driving through town when I saw a blue light flash ahead in the distance. Emergency vehicle, I thought to myself and watched alertly for more flashes. There was no more blue, but soon I saw a yellow flash ahead. Then an orange flash. By now I knew which car it was, and I looked carefully as we passed. It had a CD hung from the inside mirror, turning lazily annd reflecting sunlight in all directions. That Ought to be Illegal!

Friday, July 14, 2006

Re: GTDs.

We have a thing in our back yard that rings when our main phone number is called. I recently called AT&T to tell them we wished to stop using this device. I had to make sure that the AT&T person and I were talking about canceling the same thing. I think of it as a ringbox, but I was amused by AT&T's name for it. It's a "Gong Type Device." You can tell it must be a GTD because it goes "rrrrring!"

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Computer Controlled Apparel:

Today it's possible to wear a shirt with a small embedded computer that controls lights and filaments on the shirt. In a few years there'll be shirts whose material changes color, and possibly texture, under computer control. Most of this will be pretty silly, but I was fascinated to remember how long this sort of thing has been going on. I knew a hardware designer who constructed shirts for his friends with dozens, or even hundreds of LEDs that blinked on and off in marquee patterns. He was doing this in the late 1970's. (And yes, it was impossible to clean these shirts.)

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Reality Sucks ...

Last night I watched a dreadful TV show called “Last Comic Standing.” The claim – appealing to afficionados of standup like me – is that new comic faces vie in the show to be recognized as the best comedian among a large batch of hopefuls. I would love to see dueling standup comedians delivering their routines, trading witty insults, one-liners and quips, but the fact is that most new comedians have less than ten minutes of material, and few of them can think on their feet like Robin Williams.

I did get to watch three people deliver three-minute routines, but I'm afraid Last Comic a Reality Show, so mostly I watched people agonizing over whom to kick out, and heard many maudlin asides and expressions of hope from the feeble cast.

Finally it hit me: Reality TV is NOT Amateur Talent TV. Television had a bunch of amateur talent shows in the past (and I hope they will never come back). Reality shows are different; they are not about people doing things really well, rather about people having a hard time with other people.

At one moment in the show I was greatly embarrassed, and I hope you will not laugh too hard at me when I explain: the three comics delivered their jokes to a theater audience of hundreds. At the end, the MC needed to find out which comedian they preferred. I expected him to ask everyone to clap in turn for each contestant, with an applause meter showing who got the loudest claps. Well that's the way they used to do it on TV, in the 50's, 60's, 70's, 80's ... . Instead the theater was wired, every seat having a voting box with three buttons. Every audience member pressed a button for their preferred comic, and the results of this secret ballot were instantly tabulated. Of course!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

AOL to offer free web access?

News Item: AOL considers offering web access for free, in order to concentrate on their advertising business.

Actual Transcript of an unactualized telephone conversation:

[AOL Customer Rep:] Hello, I believe I'm speaking to John Smith at 111-555-2222, is that correct?

[John Smith:] Yes.

[AOL CR]: Your mother's maiden name is Barbaraburg, and your dog's name is Dodo, is that correct?

[JS:] Yes. What is this call about?

[AOL CR]: I'm calling to tell you that as of next month, AOL will no longer be charging your credit card for your access to the Internet. You'll be able to get on line free of charge!

[JS:] Sorry, I'm not authorized to accept that.

[AOL CR]: What?

[JS:] Look, if you stop charging my credit card, we'll just arrange to have you charge another one of our credit cards.

[AOL CR]: Look here, I'm just trying too get you to accept using the Internet for free! This is a small, welcome change to your account, that's all.

[JS:] I'm not authorized to change my account. No can do!

[AOL CR]: (sigh.) Okay, who's authorized to change your account?

[JS:] Only my father.

[AOL CR]: (sob.) And how do I get in touch with your father?

[JS:] He's dead.

[AOL CR]: What?

[JS:] He's dead.

[AOL CR]: Then how am I supposed to get in touch with him?

[JS:] Hey, that's not my problem. But if you want to change our account ...

[AOL CR]: Please, you've got to help me! They gave me a list, and I have to convert 60% of them to free accounts or they'll fire me. Jeez, I'm offering you a FREE account!

[JS:] Sorry, bud. We AOL subscribers are banding together, and we're keeping our money accounts. You'll have to keep charging us, that's all.

[AOL CR]: (Not fit to print; sobs; hangs up.)

Monday, July 10, 2006

Blitz Concentration!

My grandson almost invented an exciting new game. I'm helping out now, to realize the full potential of his idea. I'm sure you already own the necessary equipment to play this game, and I recommend it to you.
"Concentration" is a game with a deck of cards or objects that are paired on one side, but all the same on the other side. The items are distributed randomly on a surface and you take turns turning over two cards to find matching pairs. Unmatched cards are turned face down again, but if you remember what and where they are, better than your opponents, you'll probably win.

Concentration comes in many, many forms. My grandson asked me to play some game with him, and I quickly realized he had a sort of concentration deck. I checked the rules of the game with my son, who confirmed we were indeed about to play Concentration, but he added, vaguely, "There's also another rule. Sometimes you're not allowed to play the card you want."
That made no sense to me so I ignored him and started the game. After awhile I saw my chance; a mismatched card would match a card previously turned, and I remembered where it was. As I reached for that other card, my grandson said, "You're not allowed to play that card now."
Obligingly I turned over some other card, and my grandson got the pair instead. And, I then understood the "other" rule my son had been explaining.

Now instead of calling my grandson a sneaky cheat - let's avoid the blame game - I want to move forward into the exciting new world he's created. Here are the changed rules you need to play: Blitz Concentration!
When it is any player's turn to play, he or she turns over one card, and then uses the same hand to turn over a second card. But if any other player places a hand on another card first, he may not turn that card over at this time. The other players may each block at most one other card in this way. Quickness of hand and thought are what count, in Blitz Concentration. (I suspect this game will be best with just two players. Too many players, too much defense.)

Backyard tomatoes harvested so far: Cherry, 3. Plum, 0. Big Girl, 0.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

A gift to Ebay: Sealed bids!

A recent study suggested that the best way to win an ebay auction is to enter your one best bid at the last moment. That can be pretty inconvenient when auctions end in the middle of: the night, or whan you're at parties, concerts and so on. Many people use computer programs to bid for them - and bid to the very end of the auction for them - making the auction experience less pleasant for other bidders. Many people who sell on ebay hate the bidding programs and prefer to sell to real human beings.
So I suggest that ebay provide an alernative for those who want more human, easier to use auctions: sealed bids. In a sealed bid auction, the bidders do not know how much others are bidding. You simply submit your bid and find out later whether you've won. Economists approve of this type of auction, it apparently produces desireable results just as well as a competitive auction. But sealed bidding would seem to have an advantage at ebay: I cannot see how it would help to have a computer program assist you (absent hacking the auction), and you could make your one bid at any time.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

The fashion statement: I, Geek!

A few months ago I visited a company to discuss consulting for them. I wanted to make the point that I'm an up to date techy geek, so I was careful to wear my USB memory key, and to place my resume file on the key. I expected that everyone I would talk to had already seen my resume, which had been mailed to them, but I would bring the file just in case; and if anyone said they hadn't seen it, I would whip out the usb device, we'd plug it into their computer, and all would be fine.

When I arrived at the company, I identified myself to the receptionist. She said, "I need to give everyone a copy of your resume, do you have it with you?"
I pulled out my usb memory and offered it to her. She had no idea what to do with it. Now obviously this was NOT the person I wanted to impess with my geekmanship. But I wound up crawling on the floor under her desk, moving her desktop computer around, managing to find a usb port and plugging my memory in. I was thankful I'd found a port at all on her relatively old computer, thankful she didn't feel too busy to allow me my crawl time. I helped her find my resume and print it.

I'm back to bringing printed resumes to interviews. Paper is a wonderful storage medium!

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

When did you discover The Lord 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 with me to summer camp, 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, and I bet they proudly tell them, "I learned about LotR in 1959!"

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

About all sorts of living things ...

I'm growing tomatoes this year, a patch with eight plants of three different kinds. We have not harvested a single fruit yet, but with about seventy green tomatoes on the vines – cherries, plums and Girls – things are looking good.
Today I looked out the window and saw a startling sight: two brilliantly colored cardinals hovering precariously over my tomato patch, their colors a striking contrast with the green vines. How nice, I thought, pretty cardinals. But then I thought, CARDINALS PECKING AT MY TOMATO PLANTS??? And I ran outside shouting to drive them away.
Now I know there's no way I can run outside often enough to keep the cardinals away, so I started hunting for something I might put on a post, perhaps some bright, flapping fabric, to keep scaring them. But while I searched, I also asked myself what they were doing there. We seem to have cardinals in our neighborhood all year long. Why buzz my tomatoes now? Then I remembered: two days ago, I saw a Japanese beetle (the hateful thing!) on a tomato leaf. I rushed to my computer and Googled cardinals AND "Japanese beetles". Sure enough, the birds were just trying to help me out.

I hope they come back.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Holiday Garbage Schedules:

I don't know about you, but in our town, holidays introduce little variations into the garbage pickup schedule. I used to worry about this a lot, as I hated to put out garbage that would not be picked up, but also hated to miss a pickup. But now I have a simple rule: when it's a holiday, don't put your garbage out. Let's consider some scenarios:

  • The garbage men have the day off. No point putting out your garbage.
  • The garbage men have to work until they're finished collecting the garbage, then they get the rest of the day off. Might as well help them finish early. Don't put out your garbage.
  • The garbage men have to work all day on the holiday. Lighten their load, it's a holiday! Don't put out your garbage.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Wouldst Parley with Eddie Stanky:

Eddie Stanky was a gutsy fighter of a baseball player with an excellent ability to hang in there at bat and draw many walks. In 1951 he was playing for the Giants, whose home games were at the Polo Grounds. This ball park had some box seats at ground level very close to third base. Being up close gives spectators a great view of the game, but with this view comes responsibility - to concentrate on every pitch, since a line drive can hit your face in a moment.

On this occasion that I remember, Stanky hit a line drive foul ball right at those box seats; the fans dove under their seats for cover as the ball flew by, then dusted themselves off and resumed their seats. Stanky then hit a second line drive foul ball right at those box seats; the fans dove under their seats for cover as the ball flew by, then dusted themselves off and resumed their seats. Stanky hit a third line drive foul ball right at those box seats; the fans dove under their seats for cover as the ball flew by, then resumed their seats. Stanky then hit a fourth line drive foul ball right at those box seats; the fans dove under their seats, etc. Stanky then hit a fifth line drive foul ball right at those box seats; the fans dove under their seats and this time they stayed down for a bit. Then a lone arm appeared and slowly waved a white handkerchief up for all to see. (Stanky hit the next pitch in fair territory.)