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.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Google to Release a Godsend to Spammers!

Google has announced that it will soon sell a 6-dvd set that records the relative popularity of a billion five-word sequences it has found in its web searches (of over a trillion words). This is a "let the flowers bloom" initiative. Google's sure they have no idea what wonderful uses this data may serve, and they can't wait to spread it around and find out. This sort of textual data is quite valuable, all the more so because of the enormous amount of data it's based on.

Fortunately I can already tell you one of the most profitable uses that will be made of this data: programs that generate spam will use it to make much more realistic emails to slip past spam filters. I can hardly wait to read some of this new, semi-literate spam. But I do think Google is right to release the data. World, surprise me!

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Not the Gordian Knot:

My wife and I had to untangle a large skein of wool. The strands had intertwingled every which way, and it was a long task. As we worked (she did a lot more o the dirty job than I, I confess), I thought about how Alexander's solution would not work here; cut through the skein and it would be worthless.

It gradually became evident that we were working in very different ways. We each rolled up the wool from our end as we freed more material. But my wife would methodically uncross one strand at a time, over, under or through. Meanwhile I would stare at the tangle for awhile and pick up a thread I thought was the continuation of my end. A tug would reveal if I was right, and when I was, I passed my ball through perhaps twenty strands at once to reach where the continuation was. My method did not seem to be faster; it was just the way I liked to work on the tangle, and I wondered why.

A few days later I was trying to figure out which computer an internet cable was attached to. We had about eight computers in a refrigerator-size rack, each with two internet cables, and similar cables passing right through as well. Many of them hid behind a CRT. I picked up each possible canidate and gave a tug to see if I was holding this very cable in both hands. And then I had my "aha" moment. Of course, this is how I'm used to untangling threads.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Knowing how to get out of a building in case of fire:

I'm currently working at a fairly large complex of interconnecting buildings that - I had believed - I know well. I came down to the first floor today, stepped out of the elevator and was completely disoriented. To my right and left, about fifty feet away, were big closed metal doors. (These doors probably closed during a power failure; I've never noticed them before because they are always open, and all they do is to cordon a long hallway into segments.) I couldn't decide which way I wanted to turn to get where I was going. I picked one direction, opened the doors, glanced further, and then at last I knew where I was.

Fire doors that do not need to be kept closed are one of humanity's great inventions. The doors are held open by electromagnets that will release the doors if a fire is sensed in the building, or if power is lost. I've been in other buildings where it seems to be a godsend when these devices are installed, so we don't have to keep opening and closing the heavy fire doors all the time. (Not to mention the danger that impatient people create by blocking ordinary fire doors in the open position because they are sick of closing them.)

But today I learned that these fancy fire doors, when closed, can change the look of the building enough to be disorienting. If there had been a fire, my confusion might have been critical, and choosing to open the wrong door to find my way might have been a disaster. I'm setting out now to find all the fire doors in this place. If there ever IS a fire, I want to know what to look for.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Coming soon, to a theater near you...

I thought up a cartoon, which I think is funny. I can't draw at all, so I'll describe it to you. Imagine a big, crowd-filled movie theater. In the dark, the projector is illuminating a tiny rectangle in the middle of the wide, wide screen. We can descry one couple in the audience, and one of them is saying, "I know, but it will look great on a cellphone." (Or perhaps, "it will look great on an iPod.")

Backyard tomatoes harvested so far: Cherry, 156. Plum, 19. Big, 3. Delicious!