Monday, December 31, 2007

Talking Head Sense:

David Byrne, THE Talking Head, has a thoughtful piece in Wired about where the recording industry is going. He agrees with me a lot, which I like. His essay reviews how the recording companies used to add value, and how they fail to do it now. His most striking point is an assertion that in recent years, the RIAA companies have tried to sell CDs instead of selling music. To him, that's like supermarkets trying to sell shopping cart loads instead of selling food.

For the world in general, 2007 was a truly awful year. I hope we do better in 2008!

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Creature of Routine:

In my youth, I lived an extremely flexible life. Nothing was a regular responsibility, not even flossing or dishwashing. (Well, maybe practicing.) I liked the feeling of living impromptu, making decisions about what to do on the spur of the moment. Day-to-day life had a lot of enjoyable variety.

In his late 80's, my father-in-law gave me a hint that such variety and old age do not mix. I admired his inflexible insistence on washing the dishes before playing Scrabble, even if we barely had time for a decent Scrabble game. There was iron routine in his life, and that routine ensured a certain order in his household, made it less likely that he would founder beneath duties undone.

I'm only in my sixties, but I have become much more a creature of routine. There are maybe a dozen things I try to do everyday, despite the incredibly varied ebb and flow of the rest of my life.

As I watched myself falling into this semblance of routine, I hated it. I regarded my new habits as a necessary evil to be understood and despised, but not abandoned. Which brings me to our recent vacation.

We were away from home for two weeks, during which I abandoned all pretense of routine, even taking daily vitamins. I never did my flexing exercises. I got around to almost all the usual routine items every few days. I was living the flexible life again. Why not, I was on vacation! And then we came home.

I found myself determined to pick up every bit of my routine life again, the flossing, the flexing, the walking, the dishwashing, the vitamins, the medicaments, etc., etc. As all of my routine life fell back into place, I felt good. I was home.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Ummm, security:

I bought something at Walmart. (I apologize.) The lines were long, except at the self-checkout counters. I'm sure you're familiar with self-checkout. Typically, a single human being can monitor four self-checkout aisles, continuously solving checkout computer problems. That's a lot better than hiring four cashiers.

In this case, the customer ahead of me had checked out his ten items and was attempting to pay with three Walmart cash-gift cards. Only one of them would scan, $10 out of the needed $28. The fixit guy came over and tried; and he tried and he tried, to make the cards scan. I stood right next to them, trying not to look impatient. After all, the customer had scanned all his items. It wouldn't be fair to make him go to a cashier and start all over again.

I was wrong, it IS fair. The fixit guy entered his ID# on the self-check computer, and his password. I have them right here, they printed out on my receipt:
STORE #: 2171
ID #: 9643934
I mean it, his password printed out on my receipt!!!!!! Anyway, the point is, the transaction was SUSPENDED so that it could be continued by a real cashier who could handle the gift cards. And meanwhile I got to do my checkout, without needing help from the fixit guy. I'm really impressed by Walmart's security.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Chinese Restaurant Chaos, and a compliment:

How often do you compliment other people? In your work, in your life? People really appeciate compliments, but we all have a tendency to offer only constructive criticism. Most people really love compliments, and you can take a great deal of pleasure in how they receive them.

Last night we ate dinner at a Chinese restaurant in chaos. Chaos! People complained that dinner took three hours. The front of the restaurant was clogged with angry customers demanding their overdue takeout orders. Sometimes no staff member could be seen. The staff gave very vague answers, explaining that "It's not my problem."

Indeed, food straggled out of the kitchen, a dish here, a dish there. There must have been too few cooks and too many takeouts. While we were there, they ran out of tea, mustard, cloth napkins and chopsticks.

We had made a reservation, so, in the absence of staff, I grabbed the first empty table for our little group. I cleared the table and wrote up our order myself. I handed my order paper to the one harried woman on the staff. She snatched it and ran into the kitchen. After that, for a long time, I wondered whether our very atypical order would be processed. I could not imagine how to find out how the order was doing, after hearing conversations like this:
"I've been waiting an hour, where's my takeout order?"
"It's being cooked now."
"You said that thirty minutes ago! I'm leaving!!"
"Stay, and you can pay half-price." (The woman got her takeout order ten minutes later.)

Eventually we got all the food we ordered, mostly brought by this woman, one dish at a time. The first time she brought part of our order, I guessed that all would be well; the order was being cooked, and she knew it was our food.
When I paid, I thanked her for looking after our food. She practically melted with pleasure. After maybe seven hours on her feet, and three hours of angry complaints, a nice word!
Try more nice words yourself, you'll enjoy it.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Another Business model is about to tank?

If you've read my blog regularly, or handreds of others, you know that the big music media companies are desperately trying to prop up their obsolete business model. These companies no longer provide much added value, and they are doomed to collapse, despite their success in getting laws passed to make it difficult or illegal to compete with them.

A recent podcast by Sam and Jim, of Sam and Jim go to Hollywood, suggests that the TV business may be the next to go. I find their argument refreshing, especially because I had little inkling of it before. They note that TV is doing everything it can to get onto the Internet. Once it's truly easy to watch TV on the web on a large screen (2008 or 2009 will be the year), the TV business will lose their current business model, and there will be a market for writers and actors on the internet. Here's one of their examples:

It costs two to four million dollars to make a hour of TV. A significant part of this cost involves paying for access, because there are so few successful TV channels. But when there are a million TV channels on the web, access costs will fall.

I would say that more generally, the added value that the networks provide will gradually disappear. Computer software will lower costs of production and delivery, just as they have for music. People with talent will be able to produce, distribute and sell. We can expect the TV channels to do everything they can to jury-rig the laws in their favor, just as the song-biz has done (with DMCA legislation, for instance). But in the long run, you cannot legislate a business model, not in an international economy. The days of giant, powerful, conglomerate TV channel owners are nearly over.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The world is going to hell ...

There's a Pirates of the Caribbean version of Scrabble.

Staples is selling Starbucks coffee mugs.

I don't care any more, but if I did: I would be in pain.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

How to eat Raw Egg White:

During our vacation, I ate far too much delicious food of every sort, so it is perhaps kind of sweet that I tried to avoid extra cholesterol at breakfast. I shelled hard-cooked eggs and ate the whites only.

One morning, when I cracked the egg, raw yolk and white ran out. I quickly realized what had happened. The tray of raw eggs was to the left of the chef making omelettes, and the hard boiled eggs were to his right. (This particular mistake is harder to make when the omelete chef works from a bottle of egg, instead of using fresh eggs.)

I really should have noticed. The cooked eggs were warm, the raw eggs cold.

By the way, to eat only the whites of hardcooked eggs: Gently slice around the long axis with a knife. Do not cut though the yolk. The white will come off easily, and the yolk won't be stuck to your knife.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

What shall I use ...

I'm a fan of the Daily GizWiz podcast. Each show recommends a gadget, along with humorous talk and wonderful reminiscences. One show, Leo Laporte made history by recommending the Titanium Spork. He has been teased about it ever since. The problem is: how desperate do you have to be to call a spork a "gadget?" It has no LEDs, it needs no battery, it doesn't play music ...

But that spork has become a watchword on the show, so I was very glad to receive -- at last! My own pair of titanium sporks as a gift. If you're wondering, a spork is equally useful as a spoon or a fork. That's all it is.

Two days after I got it, I took a bowl of left-over food out of the fridge. Staring at it, I found myself wondering, should I eat this with a spoon or a fork? Aha! I pulled out my spork and savored the dish to the last drop.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Avis ... Strange:

I rented a car from Avis today. You remember all those optional insurance items? When you rent a car, you have to decide which to accept, which to decline. My Avis agent said that now he is not allowed to call them insurance. They are "services."

I went in person to rent my car because the AVIS number was busy for the previous hour. When I got there, the agent hung up. I told him his commercial line was busy.
"It's not busy now," he said. I called the number and it was still busy.
The agent shrugged his shoulders. "Oh well," he said, "We have plenty of reservations."

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

I'm just bitching today, I hope you'll listen:

I received an email inviting me to take a survey at SurveyMonkey. . (No, I'm not making it easy for you to link to them.) I happen to care about the survey topic, so I took the survey. The survey was designed, I believe, by the website that emailed me, a PR site called www dot welfeldpr dot com. (No, I'm not making it easy for you to link to them either.) The client who paid for the survey is blameless I think, and shall not be mentioned.

Now about ten minutes into the survey, I was admonished that I had to fill in all the lines on the previous page. I was set back to that page. On that page was a table, four columns of seventeen rows. I had to indicate preferences by checking one column for each row. But now I noticed that as I added checks, other checks disappeared. I won’t bore you with the detail, but it was in fact impossible to check more than four of the seventeen rows. Since I could not possibly follow the directions, I had wasted my time and had to give up.

I emailed surveymonkey, telling them to redesign their software to prevent a survey designer from making such a bonehead mistake. I hope to hear from them some day.

I emailed welfeldpr, explaining the problem to them. I soon got a response that tells me they actually got a few more complaints about this survey. Here it is:
Thank you for taking time to take the survey. We are sorry that you had difficulty with it.

If you would take a moment to try again, we have corrected the problem and will gladly enter you for a chance to win the gift certificate.

Thank you to those who wrote to explain the challenge which occurred for some recipients.

The gall! I've been asked to fill the questionnaire in all over again, and in return they will not make me ineligible for their prize. This might be the last surveymonkey survey I take. I appreciate Welfeldpr's apology, but I'm not very favorably disposed to them, either.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Griddlecakes Radio:

I very much enjoy a podcast called Griddlecakes Radio, which serves up regular “Griddlesodes” every two weeks or so. The author, Ron, tells stories about his life, or regales us with spellbinding bits of history, like his series on fishing boat competitions between New England and Canada. I was listening to a recent podcast he called “Transitions”, in which he went through some of the big changes in his own life. I wasn't really “touched” by this tale, I just nodded wisely as he limned transitions of his own: learning to live with strangers, having the first baby, kids leaving for college, and so on ...

And then he announced another transition: no more time to prepare podcasts! He will complete the current season, and then pretty much stop. And then the meaning of this Griddlesode hit home: I'm having a transition too, as another favorite podcaster gives it up. I'm glad he's leaving his shows online, I plan to go back and listen to all sixty-plus again from the beginning, they're good entertainment.

CAre to check him out? Try this one first, it's a hoot: Radio vs. Podcasting.

UPDATE: The news isn't as bad as I thought. Ron plans to post fewer shows per year, but there will be some.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Who was that Lady?

Today, I'm protesting a photo caption that appeared in the New York Times. It accompanied Vivien Schweitzer's review, "Listening to the Fragile, Ethereal Beat of Butterflies' Wings". The caption simply says "from left," and names four of the five people in the picture, as you can see. The fifth person, completely ignored, sits at the pianist's left: she is the page turner. Page turning is an honorable avocation that frees the pianist from the drudgery of memorization. Page turning requires concentration in the throes of a great performance, the ability to judge how early to turn each page so the pianist can read ahead, exact knowledge of which repeats will be taken, and precise fingertips that never turn the wrong number of dog-eared or crisply new pages. Who was that lady? She deserved to be identified.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

"Pig sitter charged with cruelty"

This newspaper headline says it all, but it's not easy to guess how. The story is all over the internet. Imagine a pig ballooning from its normal 50 pounds to 150, so that surgery was needed to remove a collar that had become embedded in her overly fat neck.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Written by a College Student, no less!

There's an orange and blck couch in the hall near the radio station entrance. It has been there for a long time, and I'm not sure it ever gets used. Someone pinned a hand-written note on it, as follows: "Does this couch belong to you? If not, please write here."
I wrote there. I imagine this note will get a lot of responses. But I doubt they will help.

Monday, December 03, 2007

A test for vegetables:

When our daughter was young enough to eat from a highchair, she went through a food-throwing/food-dropping stage. You know what I mean. But I was clever. I figured out what vegetables our dog liked. When she threw food on the floor, the dog cleaned up.

A few years later our son reached the same stage. I could not remember which vegetables our dog had been willing to eat, so I experimented, with absolutely no success. I eventually came to the conclusion that our dog no longer liked vegetables.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Toilet Flush Handles can be Interesting:

During our vacation in Israel, I had occasion to use many toilet flush handles. It seems to me that Israel (and perhaps all of Europe as well) has hit upon the precise sweet spot in its bureaucratic regulations of these handles. First, you must understand that almost every toilet has two handles. One of these produces a much more prodigious flush than the other. Second, it appears that anyone who knows about the two-handle system can figure out which handle will produce the larger flush.

Now you may find my second point puzzling, unless you already know the truth: there is an unbelievable variety in the design of these handles. Artists and designers have been given free-reign by the bureaucrats to make the handles look any way they want, as long as they are there, and their separate functions can be inferred. Let art reign! At least, when it comes to clever functional design.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

The drama of the keys:

When I take a business trip, I rent a car from an Avis place that is three-tenths of a mile from the parking lot where I work. I leave my own car in the company lot, and walk to the Avis to get the car. I take the rental car key-ring and attach it to my regular keyring, so that I have one ring, ensuring that no key will be lost. Please bear these things in mind.

When I returned the car to Avis, I took my keys off its ring and handed the car keys to the Avis rental agent. "What's the car mileage?" she asked. I had not thought to check, because usually the rental company uses an electronic thingy to get the mileage.

"I'll go check," I said.

"You'll need these." She handed back the key ring, and I saw, with horror, that the key for my own car was still attached. I might not have been able to drive my own car anywhere. I extracted my own key, gave her the mileage, and walked to work.

I did about two hours of work and then walked to my car. I tried to open the locked door with:

Oh hell! With the Avis car keys, which were still in my pocket. I drove at once to Avis, wondering why they had not called, and whether they would charge me an extra day for keeping the keys.

I walked into the Avis place. The same agent was on the phone. I quietly handed the keys to her. Her eyes widened, we nodded to each other, and I left. Phhewwwww.

Friday, November 30, 2007

A cascade of alarms:

I worked in Virginia this week, waking up at 6 a.m. each day. Hotel rooms usually have one abstruse alarm clock-radio, and it's usually risky to assume that you how to make it work. So I often ask the desk clerk for a wakeup call. Most hotels now automate "personal" wakeup calls. I trust their computer to call me on time, more than a hotel clerk. Unless the computer is down, of course.

But in this case, I was able to set a cascade of alarms. My cell phone has three alarms. I had brought an alarm clock. I also used two alarms on my watch, and that hotel clock-radio. I set them up as I do at home when I need to wake at 4:20 a.m. (to turn on the radio station at 6): starting with the quietest alarm, working, in intervals of two minutes, to the loudest. Then I thought: I'm being silly!

At home, my goal is to wake up early without waking my wife. Alone in a hotel room, my goal should just be to wake up. So I set all the alarms for 6, 6:01 and 6:02, and their avalanche of sound woke me very nicely, thank you.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Duplicitous Salesmen, Double Salaries:

In the early '80s, I wrote software for Exxon Office Systems (EOS), one of the more disastrous ventures in the history of computing. Exxon tried to make EOS into a worldwide presence with sales in dozens of countries. They paid well – otherwise who would work for them? – but their sales force presented a special problem, one that's probably well-known in many industries.

Many of the sales people worked on their own, covering some large geographic region. They set their own hours and planned their own campaigns to make sales. Occasionally they reported to regional meetings or came to the home office for new information and training, but their real challenge was to sell enough to support themselves well, and they could use their time as they wished to accomplish that. (To raise their gross, some salesmen, when visiting the home office, would steal copies of new software applications not even ready for alpha testing and sell them, but that's important now.)

The problem was that sales were dismal. EOS sold some expensive, poor products. They also sold some very expensive good products. Prospective customers were wary of a gasoline company in the office business; so every sale was hard to make. In fact, most sales people could not live on their commissions. To keep sales people, EOS paid them decent salaries. Therefore most of their sales staff had little incentive to bust their chops to make a few more sales.

Remember how I described the life of the sales force above? Well with all that independence, it was understood that some sales people had two fulltime jobs. They sold just enough EOS products to keep getting their salary, and they also worked on commission, maybe even for for one of our competitors.

In September 1984, it became obvious that Exxon planned to shut down its Office Systems division. But they did not wield the axe until the following January, giving us all four more months of salary. In the interim, the documentation people set up a little shop to polish resumes for everybody. Marketing played trivial pursuit; the software people played computer games; the hardware designers worked on inventions that they could use to start up their own companies; and we suspected that many, many sales people took that second fulltime job.

Monday, November 26, 2007

"Port delays damaging fruit imports."

The title of his entry is a news headline that I read while on vacation. I like it for its ambiguity. For a wonderful few moments, I wondered why the port hadn't started damaging the fruit imports already.

Not at all!

Pity the poor fruits, just waiting there in the port, getting damaged.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

A tool is broken:

You know how easily it is to break a fingernail? I grabbed something wrong and cracked a piece off my right thumbnail. (I used to think that nails got brittle when you didn't eat enough calcium or protein, but we had been on vacation, eating an avalanche of Ca and Me, so forget that.) I filed the nail smooth, and it's not bothersome now. But the white part of the nail's profile dips low in the middle. And that's very important now.

My music player has a peculiar set of controls. When I first bought it, I thought I would hate it, but with use I discovered that the controls were brilliantly designed. There's a tiny touchpad on the device, and the plastic ring around the pad is actually four pushbuttons. You press the right edge, for example, to fast-forward. With your thumbnail. If you happen to have an ordinary sort of thumbnail, that is.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

What group are you in?

During our vacation, most of the guests in our large Israeli hotel were on religious (Christian) tours. We talked to a few of them and they seemed quite sincere. One morning I was talking to two Sapanish-extraction fellows from L.A., and I asked them which tour they were on. They both said the exact same thing:

Um . . .

Suddenly it occurred to me that a religious trip to the holyland might be an inexpensive way to vacation in Israel, even for Christians.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Microsoft, IBM, and the seven dwarfs:

Well, I'm writing abut Microsoft's Zune again. Microsoft has released new Zune models. Unlike the original ones, these music players are not a joke. Microsoft is trying to crack the music player market, starting at a great disadvantage, and it is fascinating to watch them and see what they can do.

The music player market is itself quite peculiar. Apple owns the overwhelming share with its iTunes products, and then a whole bunch of manufacturers come in second and third with less than (or much less than) 10% of the market. Microsoft claimed to be the second strongest manufacturer based on their original Zune products, but their sales numbers are suspect, because they announce how many players they send to stores, not how many are actually purchased by actual users.

It occurred to me that this player market looks a lot like the computer mainframe market of the 60's and 70's. That market was overwhelmingly dominated by IBM. There were a few also-rans, which we called the "seven dwarfs." Over time, the dwarfs disappeared, one by one. (Actually I believe two of these companies still exist, but they are not in mainframe competition as their old selves; they have evolved into different markets.) The history of the dwarfs suggests that in the player market, Microsoft has simply positioned itself to gradually fail. It just might sell players longer than, say Creative Zen, Moby or Sansa.

But of course Microsoft has a few other sources of revenue. They can weather storms that would have destroyed the seven dwarfs as long as they care to. Can they stay the course and gradually catch up? One opinion I've heard is that Microsoft has established itself in the player market as a great catcher-upper, while Apple is the established innovator. That's not good enough for old MSFT. We'll see.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

A slice of bread:

As I think I've mentioned, the hotel where we stayed on holiday offered a stupendous breakfast smörgåsbord. One feature was a great collection of breadloaves of every size and shape, with a wicked long knife to slice them. I used that knife to cut fine, thin slices, or to snip off just the top of a bagel encrusted with poppy seeds.

One morning I noticed a woman cut the largest slice I'd ever seen. She brought it back to her table with the usual plate full of foods. The slice was almost two inches thick, cut from a loaf about 5” by 5”. It was not quite as big as her head. Of course I wondered what she was going to do with it, so I kept a subtle eye peeled on her table.

From time to time, she tugged off a small bit of the “slice” and ate it straight, gradually reducing the noble slice to a jumble of crust.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

My father never caught a fish.

My father never caught a fish. Oh, he might have caught the occasional trout or a tiny sunfish, but that's not why he fished.

When I was fourteen, someone gave me a Milton Bradley jigsaw puzzle called “Trout Fishing”. It was a 1000 piece puzzle, all of them dark mottled brown, blue and green. It took us six weeks to put it together, and the faint form of a fisherman emerged amidst a jumble of leaves, twigs and water. I imagine my father as that fisher, wading into a good trout stream, dangling a lure, lost in thought. No fish would keep him company, but his ideal companions were there: twittering birds, rushing streamlets, wind-tossed greenery – to help him relax and think.

We never knew what he thought about while fishing, but he had so many interests – science experiments, amateur math, his law cases, classical music, patterns to work into ceramic designs, and so on, and so on – it seemed he could easily keep occupied if the fish left him alone.

The best part for him came afterwards: arriving home, opening his empty creel, and proclaiming himself the unluckiest fisherman of all.

Friday, November 16, 2007

How to eat a Smorgasboard:

Our Israeli hotel laid out fine breakfasts, with more than a dozen different vegetables, many kinds of yoghurt, many cheeses, many salads, and rolls, croissants, breadloaves, several kinds of fish and halvah. And dry and hot cereals. And shakshuka, potatoes au gratin, omelettes made to order, hot cheesecake, lots to drink and many other items I'm too lazy to mention.

In my limited experience, Israelis attack a grand breakfast layout differently than Americans. Most Americans tend to make multiple trips, sampling, deciding what they like, and going back for seconds and thirds. Israelis like to load up several plates full of tempting foods and array these plates on their table. Then they sit down and work away at their own grand meal.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

How to remove the yolk from a hard-cooked egg:

I'm now on a low cholesterol diet. A single egg yolk has almost three times as much cholesterol as I want to eat in a day, so I can only eat egg whites. This is a pity, because all the good taste is in the yolk. But whites have a terrific ratio of protein to calories, so I manage. (Egg whites are pretty good with maple syrup.)

I used to cut hard-cooked eggs in half lengthwise and scrape the yolks out, then eat the white. The yolks stick to the knife and make a bit of a mess. Fortunately, I found a better way. I make a shallow slit in the egg white and then strip it off the yolk. The yolk comes out as a perfect, uncut round ball, and it's easy to dispose of.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Specially Reserved:

While on vacation, we ate breakfast at our hotel, in an immense room with a fine smörgåsbord of tasty foods. The hotel has over 400 rooms, and while we were there it hosted many large touring groups. Breakfast tables were often reserved for specific groups. I liked the wording on the placards that reserved tables, for example:

Specially Reserved for Noseworthy Group.

It would be enough to say “reserved.” But “specially reserved” sounds particularly friendly and respectful.

The people who managed the breakfast room often wanted to keep us all one side of the room, to simplify cleaning and table-setting. They kept us away from other tables by using the same “Specially Reserved” signs, naming groups that had already left the hotel. This is a good recycling strategy, as there's really nothing else useful to do with a sign naming the Noseworthy tour, after those people have departed.

Monday, November 12, 2007


We're back from a lovely vacation, and I shall resume daily blogging.

As we prepared to leave home for two weeks, I agonized over whether to turn the heat on. It had been so summery all October, but now the forecast was for fall. As I saw it, I had to decide between two alternatives, each with its own risk:
  • Turn the heat on. But we have not used the furnace for months; something goes wrong, house burns down.
  • Leave the heat off. Pipes freeze.

After much thought, I decided that since our pipes have never frozen, the safe choice was to leave the heat off. We returned to a forty-four degree house! We turned the heat on at once, and after a while the temperature began to creep up about one degree per hour.

When I was deciding whether to leave the heat off, why didn't I think about returning to a cold house? Brrrrr.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Where did I put that spectroscope...

An article in the NY times today, by George Johnson, quotes Martin Rees about what scientists can do as thy grow old: Become an administrator; content yourself with doing science that will probably be mediocre; or strike off half-cocked into unfamiliar territory, and quickly get in over your head. Rees says that “in contrast to composers, there are few scientists whose last works are their greatest.”

Um ... why? Could there be something wrong with the way science is conducted, that prevents old and wise scientists from making wise contributions to their beloved fields? Science moves fast enough, perhaps, that the techniques of a particular field, even its terminology and paradigms, will be unfamiliar to the elderly, making it hard for them to apply their wisdom to anything that is current. In contrast, the classical composer, throughout his life, develops his own technique and builds upon it, at his own pace.

But I'm not persuaded by this argument. In the last twenty years there have been breakthroughs in fields that had stagnated for many years. Often, these breakthroughs required someone to examine what had been taken for granted, to apply thoughtful ideas from other disciplines, or to find a new way to do experiments. It ought to be possible for some of these breakthroughs to come from older scientists who have had a long time to think about their field. So I ask again:

Has the world managed to structure scientific investigation in such a way as to prevent elderly, deep scientific thinkers from making thoughtful contributions?

I will blog just a few times in the next few weeks. See you all, regularly, in mid-november!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

So ... What's with the Yankees?

I followed the Joe Torre story with great relish. He's gone now, but the Yankee baseball team promises to be a melodramatic tear-jerker for years to come. I'm an ex-Yankee-hater. I got used to the Yankees during the few years that the Mets baseball team was actually repellent, and I sometimes even root for the Yanks. Now I just want to see what will happen.

All my career in software development, I've been fascinated by how hard it is to MANAGE anything. The Yanks will give me a treat in studying management problems. Every bit of the saga will be played out in my favorite daily papers. Oh, the humanity!

The bottom line is that the Yankees have to have a year or two of "rebuilding." I'm amazed that the sports columnists haven't focused on the rebuilding issue. The Yanks are losing free agents and aging stars. They have some great young talent, but not enough, and their young players are YOUNG. Any sane management would realize this and give the new talent time to develop. It's SO unlikely that the Yanks will do that!

The Yanks are controlled in an unusual way. It's quite normal to have an ownership that is not skilled in baseball. The owners give the GM, the general manager, a budget to work with. The GM, an experienced baseball person with some ability to control an organization, makes the personnel decisions, and leaves player development to the field manager. The Yanks used to be controlled by one highly competitive, rich martinet owner. Right now, that aging martinet wants decisions to be made with both his sons -- who know little of baseball -- in agreement. They could leave the GM, Brian Cashman, in charge, but they won't. And they obviously feel that their feeble Yanks are almost as good as the powerhouse Red Sox.

So we have a recipe for disaster here. Will they luck out? Will they come to appreciate how lucky they were to have Joe Torre run the club in past seasons?

Oh I almost forgot to mention, they have to hire a new manager, and they may in fact hire a Newbie Manager. Suppose the team does badly next year and the owners decide it's the manager's fault. They probably won't fire him, but neither will they realize -- still -- that the team isn't that good, and has to rebuild.

While writing this item, I corrected a misspelling, but in the future I may continue to use it. The team we're talking about here is: The Ynaks.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Library of all Possible Books:

Jose Luis Borges wrote a story about the Library of all Possible Books, and this concept has fascinated many authors. When young, I read an essay about this library that intended to help me better understand large numbers and infinities. Imagine a library that contains every possible book. (Don't think about the niceties of placing a limit on the size of these books, to make this an exercise in finite numbers; it'll make your head spin.) You can imagine that somewhere in this library there is an index to all the books in it. But if you think you've found that book - maybe you've actually found a book that is an index to all the books in the library except for one tiny mistake, or ten big mistakes; or maybe it just LOOKS like an index to this library, but every book it names doesn't exist. (Is that possible?)

When I was young, the "library of all possible books" was an interesting, if impractical meme. But today: we have the internet! As the internet's collection of web pages grows, it resembles, more and more, and with all its warts, the Library of all Possible Books.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

When to hog a handicapped parking space:

Our car has a handicapped parking sticker right now. Some friends say that a handicapped parking sticker is merely the entrance fee to a parking game: whether my wife's in the car or not, how good a parking space can I get?

Frankly, I'm slightly more ethical than that. Really! When I enter a parking lot without my wife, I think hard about whether to preempt a handicapped space. Here's the truly moral and ethical issue: Suppose there are hardly any regular spaces left, but plenty of handicapped ones? Then the kindly thing to do is to grab one of those handicapped spaces, to make it a bit easier for "normal" people - some of whom have trouble walking, by the way - to get better regular spaces. Okay? I hope you understand now.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Where are the hot guys?

I visit my new health club at many different times of the day and week. I can't help noticing that there are always women there -- of all ages -- who have excellent physiques. Some of these women might be sculpting their bodies to attract men, others are probably just working to get better at the sports or outdoor activities that they like.

But where are the corresponding guys?
I often see a few handsome men, especially after work hours. But it's not the same thing. Without question, young and early middle-aged women have a much greater desire to improve themselves at this club than the corresponding guys.

I've thought of two reasons for this dichotomy, and I suspect they are both true:
  • There are no sports at our club. The guys who play racquetball, tennis, basketball, etc., go elsewhere.
  • It's a culture thing. In our sick society, it's much more important for women to work on their figures.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Which law would you rather break?

Late one night, I was waiting for the light to turn green so that I could turn onto US Route One. A sports car came down the highway and hot-pinked the light. He was doing at least 85 on a 55 mph road. Had he driven any slower, he would have run the red light as well.

Now that set me thinking: maybe he SHOULD have dropped his speed to 55 and just gone right through the red light. Late at night there's little traffic, and he would have hit the light at the beginning of the cycle. My car would hardly be in motion, I could see him and brake for him. Now please think about this:

Q.: Would you rather blow though an intersection, 30 mph over the speed limit, or just run a red light without speeding?

When you look at it that way, the answer to this question is obvious:

A.: I won't get a ticket, will I?

Well you could get a ticket. And surely you'd be in A LOT MORE TROUBLE for speeding 30 mph over the limit! But we all know human nature, don't we? Nobody's going to slow down so that they can run a red light without speeding, for gosh sakes.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Picky, picky, picky:

I've listened to many different podcasts, and I've learned from them that podcasters are different from most humans. They worry about the tiniest audio problems. They apologize for sounds we cannot hear. They fret about inaudible refrigerator noise. They rejoice in equipment changes that – so they tell us – have improved their audio quality. Exposure to all these worriers helped to convince me not to try to podcast, for the simple reason that I was, obviously, not one of them.

But there's been a change. I'm trying to learn how to make an audio recording of my novel, which I plan to post on the web for free downloads. I got the (FREE!) program Audacity, which makes editing audio fun. I recorded a few simple tracks, loaded them into the editor, and listened to them. At once I was apologizing to myself for nearly inaudible noise sounds, worrying about how to remove every possible sound blemish, and in fact, I think that in less than a minute, I became one of THEM.

You know that old saying that if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail? Well if you can edit audio, every sound looks like a work in progress.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Toy Store Nostalgia:

I love to go to toy stores, and, with young grandchildren, I have an excellent excuse these days. But why the nostalgia? Hardly anything that I associate with toy stores can still be found in them. Sixty years of imagination, and the evolution of plastics and computers, have utterly changed the landscape.

One of my last landmarks is rapidly disappearing. I used to find the Monopoly game in every toy and game store. Today we find Monopoly variants: New York City Monopoly, Louisiana State LSUopoly, Bible-opoly, Dino-opoly, Texas Hold-em monopoly, Popeye Monopoly, Al Qaeda Terrorist Monopoly, NSA Surveillance Monopoly, Chinese Poisonous Imports Monopoly, Cable TV Monopoly, Bermuda Triangle Monopoly, Hollywood Oscars Monopoly, Drug Rehab Monopoly, Hedge Fund Monopoly, Subprime Lending Monopoly . . .

I'm not upset to find all these variants. I congratulate the various game companies that have owned Monopoly rights over the years, for resisting this temptation for so long.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Windbelt:

Last year I blogged about how wind turbine farms -- an excellent sourvce of electricity in some places -- are incredibly ugly, even though wind turbines seem to be photogenic. If you've seen photos of them, but haven't seen them in the wild, you may wonder why anybody wants NOT to have them in his backyard.

Well here is a remarkable invention. Go here and play the short video. Then click on the inventor's name: Shawn Frayne to learn more. His invention is a belt that is suspended to allow wind, or even a gentle breeze, to make it vibrate. Magnets at one end of the belt turn this vibration into electricty. The belt is the only moving part, making the windbelt cheap and probably reliable. It can be scaled up to a large size, although the windbelt vibrations may pose interesting maintenance challenges for a really large belt. But in small scale, it seems like a very easy source of low-power electricity. In the video, Shawn explains the windbelt's advantages over wind turbines.I think we are going to see a lot more of this invention.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The bottomless bowl of cookie names:

Brian Wansink recently received an Ignobel prize for his Bottomless Bowl of Soup experiment. A good-natured scientist, he picked up his ignobel in person, even though I'm sure he feels, as I do, that he was getting the reward for brilliant experiment that demonstrated something truly useful. Wansink's research often illuminates how people decide when to stop eating, and this Ignobel story reminded me of when I was 18 years old and a camp counselor for the first time.

Before bedtime, a counselor from each bunk (my campers were 8 years old) picked up the milk and cookie snack that ended each day. We wanted our kids to eat this snack before bedtime (what did we know? It was 1959). An ongoing concern was the cookies: flat, blah sugar cookies without the slightest interesting variation. I made up names for the cookies each night: sasquatch cookies, umga blamga cookies, sugar-tower-armadillo cookies, whatever. The kids were always eager to hear what I would call them, and my co-counselor and I thought the names made the snacks go down better. (Wansink has done other research into how naming food can make it more or less desirable.)

In mid-summer, my parents visited me on my weekly day off. They brought me a Gugelhupf from our favorite Manhattan babka bakery. I ate some of it, and, at day's end, brought the rest back to share with the kids. As I held out the cake to them, they asked, "What's it called?" I think you can tell yourselves the end of this story.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

If I Did it:

Have you read Justice Clarence Thomas's new book, If I were biased?

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Freeze Frames from Video:

I am pretty sure that people rarely step through video to select individual frames to post on the internet. There are exceptions, especially with regard to evidence of crimes and women without underwear. But here's what I know: When you record a human being in motion, at thirty frames per second, you capture hilarious in-between expressions and postures that you'd never notice while watching them in motion. Some people are "worse" at this than others. When I worked on video capture, I watched many talking heads. Some of their faces remained quiet and placid while they talked; others flitted through hilarious momentary expressions that you could only see by looking at individual frames. Based on my experience, I have to wonder why such expressions are not showing up all over the internet. But I think I know why:

Good hi-res still shots always set the standard, at any time, for quality images on the internet. Still-frames are generally much clearer than motion frames. In fact, most people record their video in compressed formats. If you step through compressed formats of people in motion, you'll often see little detail, blurred images that trick your eye into seeing smooth motion. But these frames are no where as clear as posed still shots. Some day the quality of motion frames will dramatically improve, and then you'll all get to see these hilarious expressions. I doubt we'll have to wait more than ten years, so let's hope for the best!

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Nec-tar-ine: (1,111)

Hey, this is my 1,111th post to Precision Blogging. How about that?

I was thinking: an awful lot of fruits have one or two syllable names in English. Apparently we like fruit names to be as simple as their operating instructions. 'Nectarine' is a notable exception. I suspected that this word was a 20th Century invention, but a quick web search will show you that the word is at least 400 years old.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Driving with a Red Inspection Sticker:

New Jersey used to send us a reminder, whenever we had to get our car inspected. Now there's an honor system, backed by a nasty ticket if a policeman catches you. We're supposed to READ our sticker to figure out when we need the next inspection.

One day my wife pointed out to me that I should have gotten the car inspected seven months ago. Life was very busy, so a few weeks passed. Each time I had to drive my car, I consciously chose roads that were unlikely to have police cars along the way. I felt like a nervy miscreant. Eventually I got my car inspected. It had a hideous problem that actually occurred the moment I handed the car over for inspection - the brakes failed. My car was now undrivable. They slapped a red sticker on the car and gave me 48 hours to repair it and return for reinspection. I had to get the car towed to the repair shop of my choice.

Two days later I drove my repaired car back to the inspection station. I drove proudly, head held high, not the least bit afraid of being stopped by a police car. After all, I no longer had an expired inspection sticker. I had a legal, RED, FAILED, sticker.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Down with Kibbitzing!

As a young teenager I played innumerable chess games with my friends. Then I discovered the Lynbrook, Long island VFW Tuesday Night Chess Club, my first exposure to somewhat organized chess pleasure. My strongest chess-playing friend joined the club with me, and I believe the middle-aged and older club members found us refreshing. There we had an experience that has repeated itself several times in my life. The strongest player (before we arrived, anyway) was an inveterate kibbitzer, offering his opinions loudly on other games in the middle of play. It's usually a very strong player who feels he has the right to kibbitz. But his advice does not nearly represent his full abilities; I think that's because these are not his games, so he's not thinking about them seriously enough. Anyway, as I'm sure you know, kibbitzing is annoying, so we decided to get even with him.

My friend and I memorized a great brilliancy, Lasker-Napier (1904). We were quite familiar with this game and had played it over while reading some decent analysis. The next time the kibbitzer sat down at our table, we reset the pieces and began to play this game right in front of him.

We REVELED in his stupid comments! He had no idea how brilliantly Lasker was playing, and he often congratulated me (I was playing Lasker's opponent) on my wise moves. At the end of the game he shook his head and announced that I should never have lost. after that, we felt we had ground this kibitzer right into the dust, even though he had no idea what had happened.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Really bad self-inflicted typos:

Your email program probably warns you about spelling errors. But it won't warn you about typing the wrong word, and you can type really awful wrong words in email. I've prevented myself from sending all but one of these:

Sincerely Yours, Toy [instead of: Toby]

Dead Ralph, It was nice to hear from you ...

Jane, I'm glad to see you're woring on this problem.

Alice, just a grief reminder ...

Jim, I haven't heard from you in a whine.

I reviewed your plan. It sounds goof to me.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

He's on vacation, leave him alone!

Have you ever had this work exprience: a really awful emergency arises at work, and everyone knows exactly who can deal with it: a person who's on vacation. By the time that person returns to work, it may be toooo late. What have you done when faced wth this dilemma?

Most experienced people know that in a real emergency, a work call could interrupt their vacation. I know one guy who charged his entire vacation -- family expenses and all -- to his company after they made him spend hours every day on the phone. I also know a guy who was careful not to be interrupted:

When I was working at Exxon Office Systems, in September 1984, Exxon gave clear and unambiguous notice that they were planning to fold the Office Systems division. We all knew that there was only one last hope, that the officers of the company could quickly present an appealing plan to improve our division. To do this, they needed the director of Engineering, who was on vacation. All anyone knew was that he was on some sort of boat, somewhere in the Pacific. Nobody bothered him with this crisis. They just couldn't figure out how to find him.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Can you hear me?

In August I had a great wireless experience, and Verizon could make an advertisement out of it. I was working at this little airport the middle of Virginia, in a hectic crisis alongside many hardware and software developers. People called me to speak to other people; people borrowed my phone to call other people. When I wanted to make a call, I had to beg for my phone back. Because I HAD VERIZON'S GREAT COVERAGE! You could hear me!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

A quick update on tomatoes (2007):

This year we planted fullsize tomato plants and cherry toomatoes. The cherry tomatoes were a spectacular success. We picked 900. (Last year we got 489.) And they were delicious. The fullsize ones were a disappointment: 23 (we had 40 last year). At season-end I finally started looking online for advice on how to prune tomatoes. I discovered that there IS excellent advice, and I have not nearly been following it. It's also obvious, now, that I should not plant cherry tomato plants right next to fullsize plants, for the sprawling cherry tomato growths overwhelmed the biggies.

While reading advice about pruning, I became certain that cherry tomatoes should not be pruned the same as big ones. If I did that, I would lose about 80 percent of my cherry crop! So I was happy to find the following advice about pruning cherry tomatoes, which suggests I was doing just about the right thing for them:
Pruning and staking increases earliness to fruiting, at the expense of yield.
Earliness to fruiting, Hm? Next year, I might try pruning ONE cherry tomato plant.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Generations of Computer Programming:

In the first generation of computer programming, there were manufacturer's manuals. You read them, you studied them, you figured out how to program the computer. (One of my consulting friends had a great story about not even having these machine manuals. I must tell you about it some day...)

In the second generation, everyone also had a few good books about programming. Otherwise: we relied on those manufacturer's manuals.

In the third generation: everyone had about ten books on programming, but if you needed to figure out how to do soomething useful, you consulted your guru. Every programming staff had a few gurus (to cover many different topics), and you couldn't live without them.

In the fourth generation -- the present, that is -- everyone has at least twenty books on programming. But routinely, to figure out how to do something useful, we search the web.

A weeks ago, I needed to write a program -- right now, right this minute! -- to convert video in YUV 420 format, to YVU 422 format. In my opinion, after running all the usual web searches, YVU 422 is rather ambiguous, it has too many permissible forms. In any case, the video was not displaying correctly, I obviously had not figured out the format. At about 9 PM (EDT) I found myself hitting the telephone. Whom could I call right now who would know more about video than I? It was Guru Time, a great nostalgic throwback to the third generation of computer programming. My Gurus came through for me, too.

Thursday, September 20, 2007


I have laryngitis. It hurts to talk. At all. A lot. But I've been through this before. There were times when I went to work with laryngitis. To avoid talking to people, I brought a few index cards on which I pre-printed the few responses I would need to get through the day. I brought a few standards, like Yes, No, and "This too shall pass". I also pre-printed one or two specials, like the card that said: "You MUST implement the remote control package as a dll!"

Now here are the cards I took to the supermarket last night:
Laryngitis, I can't speak.
This too shall pass.
It's a plantain. The PLU code is: 4235

But as soon as I reached checkout, I knew I was going to have to speak. I had forgotten to bring a card that would answer this question:
"Credit or Debit?"

Now you might think I should have brought a card saying "Credit", but I always prefer a card that has more general application. This card would have been fine:
"Um, what was that second choice again?"

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Doors with Windows:

While I was working at Intel, the company implemented a policy that all doors must have eye-level windows. I watched carpenters modify doors in accordance with this policy, and I think it's a good idea. If you can always see into a room, there's less chance it will be used for robbery, espionage, chicanery, sexual quickies or sexual harassment. But I must admit, I remember seeing few truly beautiful doors with big, eye-level windows in them.

I was reminded of that last night, when I approached one of the nicer buildings on our local university campus. I faced a pair of giant, windowless doors. Their beautifully finished wood glowed in the light of a nearby red LED sign. I was about to step up to these doors and open them, but an undergrad was quickly catching up to me, so I stepped aside to let him have the honor. As he did so, the doors opened smartly from within, clobbering the undergrad and knocking him down.

Doors with Windows ... a word to the wise.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Hark, Hark, the Lark:

If you like Schubert songs, you might still not enjoy his setting of this Shakespeare poem: "Hark, Hark, the Lark at Heaven's Gate sings", etc. The problem is the way the German sounds: "Horch, Horch, die Lerch ..." Not as elegant as the English original.

But you can sing it in English, can't you? Well ... you can, but you can't quite use Shakepeare's own words. Schubert composed a setting of the German translation, and parts of the original English don't fit the music. My father tried to sing Shakepeare's words to Schubert's melody and was quite disappointed. You can sing an English translation of Schubert's German, but it's not quite Shakespeare.

Monday, September 17, 2007

I should have known ...

Now here's what ought to be one of the great advantages of reading while growing up. After reading about all the tragic mistakes people make in works of fiction, you'll know better, you'll never repeat them in your own life, right?

I wish. Despite reading much wonderful fiction in which the conflict turns on a father's expectations that his children will share his interests, I still expected my children to gravitate quickly to my own interests. The good news is that my disappointments were not the stuff of great, tragic fiction. And at least, I've relearned that lesson, right? I know better than to let my own expectations override my own experience.

I wish. Which brings us to: beta testing.

I know a lot about beta testing. I've been closely involved in many product tests. I have a pretty good idea of what you have to do to get adequate comments about a nearly complete product. One important matter is the size of your beta test: many of the people who agree to test a product will never be heard from again. Many of them will give you such vague comments that you'll have no idea how much they used it, whether they liked it, and whether it works. Some of your beta testers will have chillingly horrible experiences, but give you too little information, so that you will wonder whether your product contains a horrible bomb that's going to blow up right and left, or whether that tester was very unlucky. I could go on. But the point is, I KNOW this stuff, right?

I wish. Which brings me to the fantasy novel I'm writing. I've found more than a dozen people to read it. And that means that it's in beta testing right now. And I fancied that getting it into the hands of so few people would give me plenty of good feedback. Why didn't I realize that this beta test would be like all the others?

Hey, thanks for listening. I feel better already.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Home Computing:

In 1969, we had a teletype in our kitchen, that communicated (at 10 characters per second) with a midsize computer system, giving us access to word processing and many snazzy compilers.

In 1978, I had a home computer based on the Zilog Z80 chip, assembled by the company I worked for (Exxon), with an 8.5 inch floppy disk that had the astounding capacity of 110,000 characters per floppy.

In 1981, we bought our first of many PCs, a gift from my mother. I recently found the itemization list for this little beast, and here it is. My eyes mist over, just thinking about it:
$1,760 IBM PC Chassis
$193 Keytronics keyboard. (We liked its touch.)
$269 "Sixpak" expansion board by AST. This little jobby gave us our parallel and seial ports, plus some memory.
$64 An A/C line filter
$32 Printer cable
$150 192K additional memory (this was a 640K machine!!!)
$409 Princeton Graphics display controller, supporting both color (at this time, IBM itself did not support color) and excellent mono.
$291 Shugart 5.5" floppy drive. (360K capacity per floppy.)
The total was just under $3200. We used a "loaner" color CRT for a long time with this PC, and we also bought a word processor for us parents, and a word processor for our children, about another $300, I think.

Ah, those were the days...

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


Like many men, I have the gene for tossing things into garbage cans. I work on my follow-through, it makes a difference. When I score from, say, five feet away, I've saved myself a few steps. When I miss, I have to walk, pick up and try again, but I fancy that I come out ahead. In entertainment value, anyway.

Today I had an experience that I think I've never had before. I tossed a plastic cup at a garbage can against a wall. I overthrew, and the thing bounced right back to me, so that I could pick it up and effortlessly try again, with no extra steps. I threw short, twice, walking over and picking the cup up, before finally dropping it into the can.

Better luck next time.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Verizon, DNS, "OpenDNS"

We connect to the Internet via Verizon DSL. Recently, say, in August, we've gone “offline” a lot. Sometimes I thought I had to restart our router and modem, sometimes the service just came back by itself. The problem: we seemed to be connected, but our browser “couldn't find” any websites. At last it occurred to me that the problem might lie in Verizon's DNS servers, or “name servers.” The job of these computer systems is to translate site names like or into numeric addresses like If your computer has the numeric address, it can send an Internet message. Almost every time you enter, or click on, a named website, a “name server” is asked to translate that name into its number.

There's a free name server called OpenDNS that anyone can use. I modified our router to use it instead of the Verizon name servers, and we've had no “offline” troubles ever since. Coincidence? Hmmmm...

I just did a little web searching, and it seems that other people are complaining about Verizon's name servers. The issue is particularly poignant for Verizon FIOS users, who may not be able to tell their Verizon routers to switch name servers.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Where's the Cruise Control?

When I rent a car, I don't drive away until I know its basics. If I can't find the safety brake or the “brights” switch, I'll ask. But on a hot day, after dragging the car guy out to explain the user interface to me, and discovering that there seemed to be no cruise control, I quietly gave up and drove off.

But there HAD to be cruise control! There always is in a rented car, and this was a full-size fancy car, with its sixty icons. While driving, an idea occurred to me. One button had a really weird pictogram on it, a sort of half-compass with an arrow pointing into it. I had pressed that button when the car was parked at the rental place, and nothing happened. But you can't turn cruise control on when you're parked, you have to be driving over thirty or so. So I hit the button again, on a dark, rainy stretch of the PA Turnpike.

At once it was evident that I had turned cruise control on. This funny button was at the end of a separate stalk behind the steering wheel, on the left. (Excellent idea, most people have better control with their left hand than their right...). There was a three-position slider on this stalk, and it had three icons for its positions: a zero, a vertical bar, and a plus, like this: 0 | +
Now most cruise controls have about the same functionality, you just have to figure out how to turn them on and off, how to acellerate and slow down, and how to resume the previously selected speed. Thank goodness, because there was nothing obvious about this 3-way slider. I believe I figured out its three positions:
Totally Off; Don't care; accelerate/resume.

Now here's what's weird about all this: one of the truly natural things to do with a cruise control is to gradually adjust your speed, a little up, a little down. I would have liked to push that slider one way to accelerate, the other way to slow down. But NO! I pushed it to the right to accelerate, and I pushed the button at the end of the stalk, the one that turned on cruise control, to slow down.

Thanks for listening! I hated that cruise control; at least, I didn't have to keep all that misery to myself.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Icons, Icons, Icons ...

During the ten days I rented a full-size Pontiac, driving it nearly 1500 miles, I got to know it pretty well. The first few days were a voyage of discovery into the unknown, however. I had no manual for the car, and had to rely on the little symbols on the knobs, buttons and sliders to figure the car out. In the software business, most of us know that there's no such thing as an “obvious” symbol for anything. I think that the car manufacturers, as they manage the slow slide of the automobile interface from obvious and universal to original, incomprehensible and quirky, have a bit to learn about icons.

The best thing you can say about icons is that they do not have to be translated. You can use the same symbols in every country, which lowers Internationalization costs. It matters not that some of these icons will be cultural-specific. It matters not that some of them will make no sense to anybody. They just DON'T HAVE TO BE TRANSLATED.

Perhaps you'll understand why I'm working up such a snit when I tell you that my rented car had sixty icons visible from the driver's seat. Oh, maybe there were more somewhere; I counted sixty. The icons were not all different, mind you. In several cases, the same symbol was reused, FOR DIFFERENT FUNCTIONS. And most of them were pretty obvious, leaving maybe twenty as an exercise for the busy driver. I will reserve the cruise-control icons for a separate blog entry, they richly deserve it. Otherwise, my favorite icon was a button that looked a lot like the old symbol for the “enter” key, a sort of abstract indicator of a carriage return. This button turned out to be the “interact” button. If pressing any other button required you to make a choice, you pressed the “interact” button to go through your choices. If pressing a button required you to confirm you'd seen something, or if the car wanted to know you'd seen a warning message, you pressed the “interact” button. Quite a concept!

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

How I learned to Shout:

I took several years of singing lessons. They were really good for my singing. I can do a lot with my now half-trained voice, and I have stamina I would never have had without the lessons. I've even got a pretty good sound.

But that's not important. What's important is that before I learned to sing, I had no idea how to shout. When I raised my voice, I went hoarse pretty fast, or my throat got sore. But a trained voice can make serious noise! All that resonance, the volume! On rare occasions, when I shout from the heart – I'm that angry – I wreck my throat like I used to. But generally, I switch to my singing voice to shout, and it's effortless.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The International Standards for use of color make sense!

In the early 1980's I worked at a company that sold its products all round the world. Parts of the hardware and software had to be reworked for different countries, but to some extent we tried to follow Swiss standards everywhere for signal emissions and use of colors, for they were the toughest in the world at that time. The color standard is deceptively simple: Green for information, yellow for warning, red for danger. Now how do you apply these colors to computer products?

Here's a simple case: A light on the disk drive blinks on when data is written to the drive. What color should it be? If the drive is removable; if it's say, a floppy drive, then make the light red, because you'll lose data if you pull it out while the light's on. For a fixed drive, make the light green, it's just information. (We used to argue over this kind of stuff for days.)

I drove a full-size rental car for ten days, and I REALLY thought about those standards. This car is full of displays that you can modify and set with options. One of them is whether to display your speed in mph or kph. There's no danger of forgetting which you've chosen, because the car displays these units on the dashboard ALL THE TIME, in RED! While driving, my eyes strayed to that bit of red every two minutes. Red means danger, after all.

If you ask me, the mph display should be green, except that it would be neat to change it to yellow above, say, 55. And change the kph from green to yellow above 100. And give me a display where I can change that boundary speed for the color change. (How parameterized should a car be? I think there should be so many settings to review that a twenty minute traffic jam's not boring.)

Monday, September 03, 2007

I want a waterproof lap counter:

I want a wrist-wear gadget that counts the laps I swim. It's tedious counting laps. All this gadget has to do is increment a counter each time I make a 180 degree turn. And of course it has to be waterproof. There's a market for my gadget! The closest thing I can find is a thingy you stick, underwater, to the end of your pool. You press its big button each time you pass it. If you search for "lap counter" and "waterproof". you'll find some even lamer solutions to my problem. Why should I have to press a button? Let the gadget figure out that I'm turning around!

UPDATE! My commenter (THANKS!) pointed me to exactly the device I want. It does count laps by sensing turnaround, and it does a lot more. It's called the Clothing+ Swim Distance Tracker, and it is available (for now?) only in Finland? I've got to get one.

Friday, August 31, 2007

I averted transmogrification:

This week I was in the field again, adding features at the last minute to the software for a plane. One of the things I got working at the last minute was quite abstruse, but very important to our customer. I didn't know this, but it was so important that he had his own people come up with a backup plan, in case I failed. The back up plan was a lot more abstruse, so he really hoped I would succeed.

One of the customer's managers had to track the progress of all the many tasks coming together this month. He complained that he needed a name for the more abstruse back up plan. My main customer contact said, “Call it 'transmogrify'.” And so they did. I saw task lists reporting progress, but I had no idea what 'transmogrify' referred to.

When I got my own abstruse software working, they breathed a sigh of relief and killed the 'transmogrify ' task. That's when I found out about it. Yes! I had averted transmogrification.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

What could go wrong?

Many hotels today require plastic keycards with magnetic strips to open your room door. They often give you a “Do not disturb” card that you can stick into the same card slot. No one on the hotel staff can possibly ignore this sign and open your door, because they would have to take the card out first, to unlock the door. It's a perfect “Do not disturb sign”, and if you use it, nothing can go wrong.
One day this week I came back to my hotel room, removed the “Do not disturb” card, unlocked the door, put the card back in the door and entered my room. I locked the extra inside lock and felt perfectly safe.
Until I noticed that I was still holding the “Do not disturb” card in my hand. Where was my plastic room keycard? It was outside the room, stuck in the door slot, just waiting for someone else to use it.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Precision Cruise control:

February first, 2005, I blogged about driving 110 miles with Cruise Control, only because my back hurt too much for me to press the brake pedal. On that trip I developed an unfortunate taste for Precision Cruise Control driving.

I believe the goals of Cruise Control are to relax the driver, make driving easier, and make it easy NOT to speed. On modern cars, I suspect that Cruise Control is also the most efficient way to burn gas. The key to meeting all these goals is that you sit back and let the car do its stuff, always ready to scream awake and hit the brake pedal.

However, my tendency is to adjust my speed constantly, up and down just a few mph to adjust to each hill and passing opportunity. I feel like a virtuoso on a musical instrument, but I don't believe for a moment that what I'm doing is relaxing. Please excuse me while I gradually pass that truck …

Monday, August 27, 2007

No Maid Service!

Last week I drove again to Virginia for some field testing. Most of the hotels where I usually stay were full, so I stayed at a Candlewood Suites place. Candelwood caters to people who need to say relatively long periods of time. They give you a useable kitchen, but they do not serve breakfast. They have a few nice amenities, most of which were not useful for me. Nonetheless, I really enjoyed my stay there, so much that I had to figure out why.

I think the dealmaker is that they have no daily maid service. You can always empty a trash basket or get new towels. And they will give you new linen and clean your room each week. I entered my room, laid my stuff out the way I wanted it, and never worried that someone, in the process of cleaning up, would move my stuff about. Almost like home!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The PMS keyboard:

If you have very limited space for a computer user, you give him a chair, a foldaway screen, and a keyboard that includes a trackball. (There's no place to put a separate mouse.) The project I'm working on has several such keyboards. I won't name the manufacturer - I don't even know who it is. Many people call these the "PMS keyboards."

Now that title has nothing to do with the keyboards' moods. In fact, each keyboard acts like a reliable hunk, having no personality at all. But if there's no room for the mouse, where do the mouse keys go? There are three independent sets of them on this keyboard, big black keys with the white captions P, M, S.

I will not speculate about who thought up these captions and why. I'll just tell you what they mean, and why that's silly. The letters stand for:
Primary, Middle, Secondary. The default Windows setting is that "Primary" is the "left mouse" button. I think that the key names are very un-Windowish, because windows allows you to reverse the meaning of the keys if you're, say, a lefty, in which case "Primary" becomes the right mouse button. The engineers of these keyboards provided their own solution for lefties: a copy of these keys on the left side laid out in this order: S, M, P.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Little Blue Lights on Disk Drives:

If you need to move billions of bytes of data a short distance, the best way to do it is to pick the data up and carry it. No network can compete with short distance hand-carrying, also called “sneaker net”, for such speed.

When the plane I'm working on lands after a test flight, some of its removable disk drives have billions of bytes waiting to be analyzed. One computer has more than a dozen removable disk drives, each of immense capacity. Each drive has a little blue LED on it that flickers when data is being written to the drive.

One night last week the plane landed, and the usual people were not there to remove the appropriate data. Three people crouched over the computer and tried to figure out which drives to remove. They did this by running the same program again, that had written data during the flight, to see which drives it was using.
“I think that light flickered!”
“Nah, maybe that one. Run the program again!”
After awhile they formed a consensus and yanked a few drives. I thought it was quite amusing that a plane with cameras that can “see” in the dark, ended its flight depending on the vague visual inspection of its engineers, but they didn't think this exercise was funny at all.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

XM Radio Humor:

Last week I rented a car that had XM digital radio. Driving down to Virginia, I listened to six hours of non-stop standup on channel 150. On the way home, the genre was starting to pall. I switched often among three humor channels -- 150, 151 and 153 – to stay entertained.

Channels 150 and 153 featured uncensored comedy, focusing mostly on recent comics. Channel 151 is “family entertainment” with many clips from long-established and dead comedians. 151 was clearly the funnier channel, not surprising when you have the pick of the best of fifty years instead of the unwinnowed present to play. An old-time comedian named Myron Cohen did a remarkable piece on 151.

I have a great interest in standup, and how it is done. I was pleased that I recognized many of the comics’ voices, and a good thing too, because my XM car radio had a lousy user interface. At the beginning of each routine it briefly displayed the comedian’s name. If you got interested later, it was too late to check. And when I got home, I found no playlists on the XM website to help me figure out whom I had heard.

I enjoyed one comedian named Larry the. (My radio displayed only ten characters, and the programmer apparently never heard of a marquee-style scrolling text display.) Larry had a mellifluous voice, nice timing, and, some original material.

On the way home, XM may have lost a satellite. I often heard five seconds of hissss, and as you can imagine, when a hiss replaces the punchline, life gets pretty frustrating. I would like to have XM radio humor in my life, and I know I’d manage not to listen to it all the time.

Monday, August 20, 2007

My fifth letter in the New York Times:

I just got my fifth letter published in the NYT. The fun part is that they have been published in five different sections, and now I guess I'll try for a sixth. This latest one seems to have shown up in the Sunday Styles section. The others were in the main editorial page (about computer-composed music), the sports section (A quarterback should not say Gawg instead of Hut), the New Jersey section (use a billboard to notify first degree murderers that punishments vary from county to county), and week-in-review (agenst speling everthing frely).

The first four letters involved several interactions with a human, when someone edited my letter. (The NYT always seem to edit, that's why letters sound so similar in style.) This time I never heard from them, but a neighbor told me she saw the letter. (I had given them permission to edit in advance, and wow, they did.) Here's an ephemeral link to the letter in the Times. (They won't let me have a more permanent link for some reason). I've got to admit that they cleverly simplified my letter and removed the more emotional content. Here's their version (which by the way, they now own, and I hope they won't complain that I'm printing it; thanks, NYT):
Well-heeled couples can throw a gigantic wedding, complete with what they only think is a marriage license. At the same time, the efforts of homosexuals to achieve any union acceptable as a marriage is placed under the greatest scrutiny.

And here's my original:

Marriage License Irony:
Devan Sipher's article, "Great Wedding! But was it Legal?" (Sunday Styles, August 5, 2007) strikes one of the largest imaginable veins of irony, yet the writer seems not to notice. Our country, our states, take the marriage sacrament so casually that well-heeled couples can throw a gigantic wedding, complete with what they only think is a marriage license. They'll be filing false tax returns, etc., etc., but they won't really get into trouble unless someone notices. Our states and cities make confusing rulings about the validity of certain ministers, and leave it to us poor citizens to sort things out.

At the same time, the efforts of homosexuals to achieve any union acceptable as a marriage is placed under the greatest scrutiny, and denied again and again. Why is the state of marriage not routinely available to those who value it?

What really kills me is that when I was young -- and a terrible writer -- the Times printed dozens of letters in the weekly magazine. Today they print precious few, and I have no hope of getting a letter in the magazine now.

Sunday, August 19, 2007


Last week I made another business trip to a small airport in bucolic middle-Virginia. The planes are pretty small here (wingspan up to seventy feet from tip to tip, I think). The first day I remembered that on each of the previous three trips, I had walked into a plane wing. The wings are just high up enough that I don't see them if I'm looking down or distractedly forward. I decided not to have this experience again, because I'm always afraid of damaging one of these planes and causing some delay in a schedule.

Hours later I came out of the bathroom and walked through the hangar while making a note in my PDA. I thought I was walking in the safe alley (tape on the ground tells you where to walk), but I wasn't exactly paying attention.


Friday, August 17, 2007

Think like a programmer!

Today, I'm going to Think like a programmer.
If somebody makes a product that competes with Gmail, and is better than Gmail, they will call it Hmail.
If Google makes a new version of Gmail that looks at mail in an entirely new way, and makes you react to your mail instead of working through it, they will call it G++mail.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

More Tomatoes:

Last year I planted ten tomato plants, and eventually harvested more than 500 (mostly delicious cherry tomatoes). This year I planted earlier. I doubled the size of my plot and planted only seven plants. Last year's tomato plants were a jungle, and I wanted no more of that. I envisioned a plot with neat, separate bushes, in which I could easily see every ripe tomato, and reach them all with ease.

It quickly became clear that this year's crop was maturing slower than last. I was sure my experience in pruning, planting and fertilizing would count for something, but my fewer plants completely overran their larger space, leaving me with a dense jungle of green tomatoes. But they've been ripening, and this week they surpassed last year's total, with possibly two hundred more to come before the plants stop bearing. We have too many tomatoes to eat right now, but at least, they're delicious.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

My fifth letter in the New York Times:

I just got my fifth letter published in the NYT. The fun part is that they have been published in five different sections, and now I guess I'll try for a sixth. This latest one seems to have shown up in the Sunday Styles section. The others were about computer-composed music, that a quarterback should not say Gawg instead of Hut, that New Jersey should use a billboard to notify first degree murderers that punishments vary from county to county, and agenst speling everthing frely.

The first four letters involved several interactions with a human, when someone edited my letter. (The NYT always seem to edit, that's why letters sound so similar in style.) This time I never heard from them, but a neighbor told me about seeing the letter. (I had given them permission to edit in advance, and wow, they did.) Here's an ephemeral link to the letter in the Times (they won't let me have a more permanent link for some reason). I've got to admit that they cleverly simplified my letter and removed the more emotional content. Here's their version (which by the way, they now own, and I hope they won't complain that I'm printing it; thanks, NYT):

Well-heeled couples can throw a gigantic wedding, complete with what they only think is a marriage license. At the same time, the efforts of homosexuals to achieve any union acceptable as a marriage is placed under the greatest scrutiny.

And here's my original:

Marriage License Irony:
Devan Sipher's article, "Great Wedding! But was it Legal?" (Sunday Styles, August 5, 2007) strikes one of the largest imaginable veins of irony, yet the writer seems not to notice. Our country, our states, take the marriage sacrament so casually that well-heeled couples can throw a gigantic wedding, complete with what they only think is a marriage license. They'll be filing false tax returns, etc., etc., but they won't really get into trouble unless someone notices. Our states and cities make confusing rulings about the validity of certain ministers, and leave it to us poor citizens to sort things out.

At the same time, the efforts of homosexuals to achieve any union acceptable as a marriage is placed under the greatest scrutiny, and denied again and again. Why is the state of marriage not routinely available to those who value it?

What really kills me is that when I was young -- and a terrible writer -- the Times printed dozens of letters in the weekly magazine. Today they print precious few, and I have no hope of getting a letter in there now.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Your Results will Vary:

I've become an editing demon lately. Between critiquing other people's writing and my own, I've gotten quite imaginative about finding poor word usage. Advertisements often use awful English, but they have an excuse. In a few words and a little time they need to convey a message, and if they can save space while adding punch with poor English, then why not?

Still, I was greatly amused by a TV ad for a treatment that makes hair grow back. The ad put these words on the screen:

Extraordinary Results. Your results may vary.

Now please excuse me while I imagine my own personal varying results: Gee, lots of hair grew back on the right side, but almost nothing on the left.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Internet is a fine scale:

For some things you really need a scale. But for other things ... recently we moved a heavy printer and a copier down a narrow flight of stairs. I wanted to tell my moving friends the weights of these objects, so they would know what they were getting into. I found their weights via a few quick web searches, even though both items are a few years old.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Ivy-Covered Walls:

Almost twenty years ago, the university in our town built a large parking garage that looked like a boxy trellis. It had three levels for cars, and its walls, six feet up and above, became see-through wire cages. I thought it looked awful, although some will disagree. I asked a grad student in architecture about it, and he said, "You wait, it's going to be beautiful. Ivy will grow up those walls, and the whole building will be hidden by green vines.” In fact, it WAS a trellis, you see.

But the ivy never came. It was always trimmed back by the university's gardeners. The parking garage had become a pawn in a war unknown to its architects. Women at this time were speaking out against the tyranny of the dark night. They wanted to feel as free as men to walk dark streets and passageways, no more attacks, assaults, date-rapes, acquaintance-rapes or just plan rapes. Ivy would turn the interior of that garage into a brooding, enclosed nightspace. Cutting the ivy down left the garage, which could feel spooky and deserted at night, more open to the stars, the moon, and nearby night lights. The university took many steps to become a safer place, and cutting this ivy appeared to be part of those efforts. Although I must say, it was not easy to see how keeping the ivy down would make it easier to spot a thug, or stop an incident.

But today the ivy's growing. In some places it's twenty feet up the garage's walls, and by 2012, I think the architect's vision will be complete. The campaign to Take Back the Night continues, but it has shifted to slightly different issues. No one, a far as I know, is complaining about the ivy, and it looks pretty nice.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Shuffle-based iPhone:

Now that Apple's iPhone's around, there are persistent rumors of another iPhone based on the iPod Nano. Such a phone would be wonderfully small, but the Shuffle-based iPhone is the true goal. The Shufphone will have no display, just a single button that you press to accept and drop calls. To synch your Shufphone with any standard Mac or PC address book, you simply pull the 'i' key off your keyboard and push the Shufphone down in its place. Tap the Shufphone to update your address list and playlists, and then pull it off your keyboard and stick it back on your shirt.

Every few minutes, the Shufphone will play a song or call one of your friends at random. You'll never be lonely again!

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Flavored Water:

You can find many kinds of flavored water at your supermarket. But like flavored coffee, flavored water is something you can do much better at home. You get fresher flavors, and you can adjust the strength of the flavoring. Instead of letting those vague tastes frustrate you, spend twenty or thirty calories to get some real taste! Here are exhibits A, B,C, and D:
  • A: A glass of Sprite Zero plus a tablespoon of Boysenberry syrup.
  • B: a glass of cold water plus a tablespoon of Boysenberry syrup.
  • C: A glass of water, plus a little lime juice and sugar to taste.
  • D: Seltzer water with a splash of fresh orange juice.


Monday, August 06, 2007

Ooooh, My Awful Right Shoulder!

Everywhere I look, I see computer users falling by the wayside. Carpal Tunnel, RTS, ... the perils are hard to avoid. I've been typing data into computers for forty-six years, always aware that, in some strange, unknown way, I've got to guard my body. I've had my ups and downs, but a few years ago I fell and banged my right shoulder into a metal door-edge. Ever since, my long sessions of computer use have been dogged by shoulder pain.

Years ago I decided that the mouse was my weak point. In theory I ought to be able to move a mouse with my wrists, resting my shoulder muscles, but in fact I use my shoulder. I've occasionally shifted the mouse to the left side to give my right shoulder a rest, but my right side is much less accurate, and a mouse needs to be positioned accurately. I tried a gesture pad for awhile, but I still used my shoulder muscles. Recently I decided to try a trackball called the Marble Mouse. I've tested trackballs before, and they always felt weird. The Marble Mouse felt weird too, for a good week, but now I use it naturally. My right shoulder moves when I shift between trackball and keyboard, but otherwise, I'm being really good to my right shoulder, and my right shoulder is kind to me in return.

The next part of the puzzle is how to minimize those mouse/keyboard moves. An obvious answer is to have a lot of buttons on the mouse. If many common keyboard actions can be done from the mouse, I won't switch back and forth so often. Many yeas ago there actually was a forty button mouse, and I thought that was silly; I'd love to try it now. My Marble Mouse has four buttons. I use one for the “back” command, which avoids the most common large mouse motion I might make. I'm trying to do something wondrous with button #4, but I don't know if it can do what I want.

The fourth button works with the Mozilla browser, to call up EasyGestures menus. These are programmable menus that, if I can figure them out, will give me about thirty commands to operate from the mouse without resort to the keyboard. If I can figure out how to program these (the defaults are mostly useless to me), and if I can find a similar feature to go with Open Office, I may be able to give my right shoulder the reward for a noble career that it deserves.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

An Optical Illusion:

Once again I found a way to play a joke on myself. The lap pool I swim in has a white bottom with a column of small blue tiles in the middle of each lane. When I swim the crawl stroke, my head is usually under water, and those tiles give me a sense of my speed. The pool is mostly three feet deep but at one end the depth drops to five feet, and there, I always seem to slow down – the tiles move past my eyes more slowly. I could not understand how the depth of the water could affect my speed, and I tried many changes in my swimming to make sense of this.

Finally I determined that I'm not slowing down at all. When the depth increases, the same blue tiles are farther from my eyes, and therefore they seem to go past me more slowly. You can see the same effect by sweeping your eyes across any tiles, first up close and then several feet away.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Where are the instructions?

The instructions for using anything can be printed in any tiny custom format, and squeezed into a minuscule space. When you open a new purchase, this funny question arises: where are the instructions?

Recently we bought a simple air mattress with a battery-operated pump. It was just the thing for a visiting guest. I had a little trouble setting it up, though. I bought the requisite batteries, I took the plastic thing out of its box and opened it up. There were no, repeat, no, instructions on the box. There were no, repeat, no, instructions in the box. After searching a while in desperation, I decided to hope for the best. The obvious place to start: inserting the batteries. I pried open the battery compartment, and guess what I found?

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

A new lateral thinking puzzle:

"Lateral thinking puzzles” challenge you to think “outside the box,” or at least, creatively. They tend to sound peculiar, and their peculiarities imply oblique solutions. Here's a simple one:

A woman is convicted of premeditated murder on the testimony of her sister, but the judge decides she cannot be punished. Why?

The answer is that they are Siamese twins, presumably sharing some internal organs so that they cannot easily be separated. But in the 540th podcast of Keith and the Girl, Keith Malley scoffed, “Alright. So she goes on to commit fifteen murders, and the judges keep saying, oh I'm so sorry, we just can't punish. Yeah, right.”

After hearing two examples of Malley's imaginative scoffing, I suggest a term for it: “lateral lateral thinking” applies lateral thinking to spoil a lateral thinking puzzle, exposing the artificiality of its constraints. Here's another of Malley's lateral lateral thoughts from the same Podcast:

A woman lives on the tenth floor of an apartment building. In the morning, she gets on the elevator and goes down to the lobby, and off to work. In the evening, if there are other people on the elevator, she goes back up to the tenth floor. If she's alone, she goes to the seventh floor and walks up three flights. Why?

The answer is that she's a midget. “Yeah,” says Keith, “but she can push the button with her umbrella.”

The next time you find yourselves amidst a bunch of lateral thinking puzzlers, you might try your hand at lateral lateral thinking. Or you might pose this new puzzle, that I suspect Keith Malley does not realize he invented: A Siamese twin who shares internal organs with her sister is convicted of fifteen premeditated murders. Her sister is innocent. How shall she be punished? (I'm warning you, I haven't thought of an answer yet.)

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

How dead is the VCR?

I love the user interface that most VCRs present to me. They make it intuitively obvious to see a movie, to see where I am in a movie, to fast forward, to run backward, to jump back a short distance to catch a spoken word thatI missed. Someday there will be DVD players that present an equally simple user interface, instead of falling all over themselves to make you aware of the strengths, and the non-movie-like differences in the way video is recorded on them. But meanwhile, if I have a choice, I'll rent the tape, not the DVD.

Oh, you say the tape will be half worn out? Well the rental DVD, unlike the DVDs we actually own, will be full of disfiguring scratches that prevent parts of it from playing at all, so let's not go there, okay?

In preparation for the new Harry Potter movie, we've been seeing the previous ones. ON VCR so far! We returned tape two a little late, and I had an inspiration. Our local video rental place is getting rid of its tapes by selling them for little more than a five day rental plus a late fee. The first three Harry Potter movies were in stock, ON TAPE, and I bought them together, a sweet package deal, with a fine discount for having been so foolish as to rent the first two. So now we have them.

And now I know how dead the VCR format is. The Harry Potter DVDs are hot items. No DVDs were in stock for each of the H.P. movies I wanted. It makes sense that the VCR versions of these movies should be hot right now, much more valuable to the rental place as rentals, than as sales.

If anybody wanted to rent them, that is.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Why don't I consolidate my most common urls?

My web "home" page is simply a long list of URLs I mght want to visit. These are grouped by category, such as all programming pages of interest, all blogging pages, etc. My home page has over three hundred items, and I often have to search it.

At any given time, I use about a dozen of the links, but the particular dozen changes over time. It's easy to scroll through my home page to find the items I'm currently using, they are all a different color to show recent access. But why don't I take the few current ones and copy them to the very top of my page?

It would be very efficient to keep my most common webstes at the top of the page, but I don't. And I think the reason is, that I'm doing something else that's pretty efficient for me, and efficient for a lot of other people as well: I have a spatial memory for where my favorite web pages are, on this long list. I can usually find any specific one quickly. If I kept moving common items to the top of the list, I would never develop any feeling for where they are in the overall page. This spatial memory of where my favorites are is important to me.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Luckiest Reader of the Deathly Hallows:

My wife is, in a special way, the luckiest Harry Potter Reader in the world. She finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and thus joined the myriads of readers who know that -- as much as they've enjoyed the books -- and as much as they can reread them for pleasure -- they will never ever again read one single original word of fiction about Harry Potter and his world, ever again, by J. K. Rowling.

Later, my wife settled down for a good phone call with her daughter, who's a similar case. Somewhere in this discussion, our daughter had a grand insight, and exclaimed, "But you didn't read the epilogue!" They hung up to give my wife a chance to check the book out and, sure enough: she is the ONE among all those bereft H.P. fans to discover that: YES!! She had five more delicious page to read, it's not over! So she read the epilogue.

This post contains no spoilers, for the simple reason that I'm only up to page 450.

Friday, July 27, 2007

I Meme of Jreedy:

Huh. My first tag meme. Luckily, it's a pretty simple one. Tagger, thanks!

The Rules:
  • Each player lists 8 facts about themselves.
  • The rules of the game appear before the facts do.
  • The player ends by tagging 8 people, which means listing their names and then going to their blogs to tell them that they’ve been tagged, then going back and commenting on their lists.

The Facts:
1. I don't reliably connect faces and names. I'm very good at remembering voices, though.

2. One of my competitive chess games was published in the 1957 December Chess Review. (I won.)

3. I can get lost, particularly because I always have to double-check right/left, East/West.

4. I don't much like this sort of Meme, for the simple reason that I think it's a gross distortion of the meaning of the word Meme. See a decent definition of this sophisticated concept here.

5. My personal haven is the messiest room in the house – try and stop me.

6. I'm so lazy about doing this meme (see 4 above), that I've just copied my tagger as much as possible.

7. My first girlfriend's father played timpani, and her father composed music for a TV series. His hearing was excellent. We had to be very quiet at her house, when he was composing.

8. I'm pretty good about needles. Needling, too.

I'm not going to tag anyone. I looked at my blogroll, and it's noteworthy that I link to people I would never dream of meme-tagging. In any case, there aren't enough people in the world to tag forever, if everyone tags eight more people; I'm just speeding up the endgame a little. (I did think about tagging eight random myspace accounts, though.)