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.