Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Two-way Street:

The local university is crowded with buildings. Every bit of roadway that lets you get around with a truck or a car is precious.

A few months ago, a work crew began to pretty up a short, straight lane, about a hundred yards long. They cut up and removed a strip of asphalt and laid down white stone brick to make a sidewalk. While they worked, they reduced this lane to a one-way street, leaving them some room to work. They chopped away enough road to make a handsome sidewalk, and a curb to separate the sidewalk from the roadway. The stone brick did not extend into the space they left for a curb, however. That was apparently a job for other workers.

Every week, I walk down this lane to the radio station, and I worried about this curb. It would narrow the lane enough to turn it permanently into a one-way road, and neither direction would be adequate. This lane faces two important buildings and connects the biggest parking garage to the rest of the university; better to leave it two-way if possible. But one day another load of brick was delivered, and another group of workmen came with it. I expected that the following week, I would find a new curb jutting up into a now-permanently one-lane road.

The next week, there was still an open space to build a curb, but the brick to fill in the curb was gone. The following week, the space in the road for the curb was filled in with asphalt. So now we have a nice brick walk that will be shared by the cars and trucks that use this lane. And it will remain two-way. A good decision, I think.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Don't Give me Static!

Our home phone line had a loud background noise. It had been this way for a while. I finally decided to get it fixed. It took me an hour to arrange for Verizon to look into it. Here's why:

First, I tried to find Verizon's customer service number by Googling. This was hard, because many web sites collect complaints about Verizon, and they all show up in searches for Verizon phone and service. Now you might think I should go to Verizon's main web site and check out the "Contact Us" page. I eventually did that, but I had to make some guesses, because Verizon has a different "main" web site for each of its different services. From now on, I might remember the number for local customer service: 800-verizon.

Second, I called them and went deep, deep into a voice phone menu. It's always tempting to say, "Damn, I know more than this automated idiot" and break out, but often it's best to relax and stay with the menus as long as they offer reasonable choices. This menu was helpful. It isolated my problem and told me how to troubleshoot it before asking for a service call. They wanted me to do two tests, which the automated system was happy to tell me and retell me until I admitted that I understood them:

(A) Disconnect all phone devices and try one phone on the land line. I had already done that.

(B) Go outside my house and connect a phone to the network interface device that I would find on my outside wall, near the electrical service box. I could not believe that this device existed, but I looked and there it was.

Now I had to find a phone I could connect to this outside box. Most of our phones are wireless (no connector at all), or use A/C electricity and do not easily work outdoors. Our regular land line phone is attached very firmly to a wall. But I remembered something: an old phone in our attic that I was keeping for purely emotional reasons: it's a wonderful red color, and it looks like a Princess phone (it's more modern though). It's a simple, inexpensive two-piece telephone. I found it and took it outside.

(4) The Network interface device had jacks for six phone lines. It took me awhile to figure out which one was our land line. I disconnected it and plugged my red phone in. That's when I noticed that the red phone's headset was not attached to its base, so I couldn't hear anything. This connection requires something that looks like an RJ-11 standard phone jack, but it is narrow. My heart sank. Where would I find that in my house? I wondered if I could borrow this cable from our land line phone that's firmly attached to the wall. I went to look at it, and at once I realized I was in luck: the wire on that phone was RED! It was in fact the exact wire that was missing from my red phone.

(5) I plugged the red phone in outdoors, made a phone call and heard the bad background noise. Excellent! According to Verizon, I had just proved that it's their problem, not a problem in our house.

(6) I went deep into Verizon's menu again. It gave me a human who scheduled the work to fix the line. On the scheduled day, we got a phone call from a computer, telling us – correctly – that the problem was fixed.

In the good old days, you called a local service number and scheduled a fix in minutes. But phone calls also cost more in those times.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Holidays!

“Happy Holidays” is a nice, safe greeting for this time of year, but, really, it's not distinct enough. Greetings like “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Chanukah” are reasonably unique. But 'Happy Holidays' isn't even unique in its first three syllables, as I discovered the hard way today. I'm still cringing, every time I remember what I said to my supermarket clerk this morning: Happy Halloween!”

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Acting alone ...

As I started reading about Bernard Madoff, I told my wife that something didn't make sense here. The guy's seventy, but he would have to be a computer whiz to pull off what he did. But it seems he probably IS a computer whiz. He was an important pioneer in forcing the the big exchanges to computerize trading.

But I do not believe he acted alone. Sheesh!

Just so you know where I'm coming from: I don't believe in big conspiracy theories. If more than a few people are involved, the whole thing becomes known. But I don't believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, either.

Oh, one more thing: Someone tell the New York Times to stop using that Hang Dog Picture they keep using of Madoff. There have to be pictures that make him look as evil as he's alleged to be.

And one more thing: Keep your eye on that $50B estimate of how much money his scheme was worth. That estimate comes from the master of befuddlement himself, Bernie M. The real number might have a different number of digits.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

I come to bury Car Czar, not to bail him:

I come to this party a little late, but I want to complain about the idea of a “car czar”, because you can rule this silly idea out on purely managerial grounds.

The American automobile companies are large companies. Companies. I'm emphasizing this for a reason. They each have a fairly hierarchical structure that enables them to make decisions with an audit trail for responsibility. As everyone who has studied companies knows, it's important to avoid kicking decision-making high up the ladder. Empowering lower level managers enables the people who understand the problems to solve them efficiently. If the leader of your company (or division) makes all the important decisions, then the whole company (or division) cannot advance faster than the work of that single manager. Requests for decisions pile up and the company plods along like a tortoise.

Now you may be asking, what about the president of each company? Doesn't the buck stop with him? (Or, outside the American auto industry: her?) No, most of the bucks stop way below the top. For example, Peter Drucker has said that the job of the president of a large company is to decide what that company should be doing in five or ten years. That's plenty of work right there.

If we have a car czar, then some of the most important decisions of the three large companies will get stuck waiting for his or her attention. These won't be simple decisions requiring a quick flip of the coin, either. The Car Czar is likely to give each issue the attention it deserves, plus the coming-up-to-speed that it deserves. You can pretty much guarantee that any auto company waiting for the car czar will fall far behind the rest of the industry.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A simpler way to elect the president by popular vote:

In a Nov. 20 editorial, “Flunking the Electoral College”, the Times asserted that in order to ensure that presidents are elected by the majority popular vote, we must amend the constitution. But that extreme action is not needed. Instead, both the Democratic and Republican parties can require their electoral candidates to take a pre-election oath: that if they go to the Electoral College, they will vote for the winner of the popular vote. Electors have great freedom in exercising their vote. If the majority of electors keep this oath, the popular vote will decide the election.

Now the really neat part is that both parties should be willing to do as I suggest. Election by popular vote means that each party can campaign where its votes are, instead of campaigning in the swing states. That's got to be cheaper to do, and a lot more fun for the campaigners.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Podcast Parity:

I've been following the podcast world for almost three years. The podcast universe is a trifle more organized than the blogiverse, because it takes more effort to assemble a podcast item than a blog entry. There are incredibly casual podcasters, but at the other extreme, there are podcast people who are trying to get enough respect to monetize their casts.

Remarkably, those serious podcasters have caught up to the more traditional print media. Here's how things stand: podcasters are making little to $nothing$, while newspapers and magazines are losing hundreds of million$. Not bad, not bad.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The passing obituary:

If the newspaper business starts to die, one of its terrible casualties will be the star obituary. You've surely noticed, unless you can't bear to read an obit, that as soon as a famous person dies, newspapers print a wonderful, long, well-researched obituary. These articles are prepared in advance, and kept up to date, by reporters who somehow have time to work on them. In many cases, the featured people have been contacted about their obits, and may even have helped to write them. These short bios can be quite wonderful to read, so I'm sorry to say that I don't know who will write them in the future. Perhaps Wikipedia will fill this void, but even then, I doubt it will be the same.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Entertainment Value:

The goal of professional sports leagues is to make money by providing entertainment. The sports rulers have thought up some beauties for us to enjoy, but it's not easy to top the Plaxico Burress adventure. We will have a few months to wonder why he is pleading Not Guilty to shooting himself in the leg. Theories abound.

We can discard the idea that since his leg was already injured, he had to put it down. A more logical possibility is that he was wrestling with himself, trying to take the gun away when it went off. Or ... gee, I don't know. But the next time I'm stuck on a long checkout line at the supermarket, I'll be trying to think of some reason, instead of planning my next novel.

Plaxico, you have the best name in professional sports; maybe you have the best name, period. Why did you have to try to top yourself?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Solution to the Financial Crisis

Henry Paulson announced today that he is lending $800 Billion to himself, to end the financial crisis. Skepticism has been expressed, but Paulson says, "Please give my plan some time. Hey, it might work."

Monday, November 24, 2008

Routine Versus Glasses:

When I go to the health club to swim, I follow a regular routine. It's pretty rare for me to vary from it. What fascinates me is how much my habit militates against my glasses, which spend most of the time in my locker. I'm very near-sighted, but I like to look at what's going on. Without my glasses, my field of interest gets very narrow and boring. Here's what happens in my routine:
ONE: I shower. No glasses here. If they get wet, it will be hard to read through them.
TWO: I sit in the hot tub for ten minutes and read. (Of course I read second-hand cheap, cheap or free books here, the wet heat ruins them.) I wear my glasses, but only because little bits of interesting things happen all over the pool complex. I can read just as well without my glasses here, because sitting in the hot tub makes me tilt my head back to use the bifocal reading portion of the lenses.
THREE: I swim. I used to wear my glasses while swimming. I have wrap-around ear pieces that hold them on. But the first time I swam fifty minutes, I discovered that the chlorinated water is hell on my eyes. Now I wear prescription goggles.
FOUR: I spend five minutes in the steam room. No point to glasses here. I could just set the glasses down beside me, but they would be easy to sit on in the fog.
FIVE: I shower. No glasses.
SIX: I dry off in the sauna. If I had glasses now, I'd have to hold them while I dry. I wouldn't set them on the hot, hot benches.
SEVEN: I weigh myself. The scale readout is above my waist; no glasses needed here.
EIGHT: I dress up, including my glasses.

Was this entry boring? If so: I'm sorry.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Blackberry USA:

Columnists are having a lot of fun with their expectation that president-elect Barack Obama's Blackberry will have to be removed from him when he enters office. The democrats won't be like the current administration was, they will play by all the rules for secure, backed-up-and-saved Email, so the Blackberry has to go. Ah, so shortsighted ...

Now it seems to me that R.I.M. could have seen this coming, months ago. They've had all the time in the world to figure out how to harden their Blackberry communications, for certain designated government people, to conform to all the government regulations for presidential email. Their servers can treat certain people specially; they can manufacture a special model for the president and his special contacts to carry. It appears that R.I.M. is missing their chance to become the “President's smart Device.” Four years from now, I expect one of the smart-phone companies to be ready.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Should you worry about getting a Pink Slip?

In these dangerous times, many people are losing jobs. TV reporters refer euphemistically to people getting "pink slips." I listened recently to a TV personality who stated that millions of Americans are afraid of getting pink slips. I've been laid off a few times, but I've never seen a pink slip. Do they still exist?

By the way, whatever we call it, I hope you all keep your jobs, or soon find even better ones.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

SixSexMyths SixSexMyths SixSexMyths ...

Digg linked an article called "6 Sex Myths" at Cracked.com. This article has a peculiar title (not surprising for Cracked.com) because according to them, some of these items are not myths. But I think this is the interesting part:

"Six sex myths" is an awesome tongue-twister. Try saying it fast several times. It ranks up there with Theophilus the thistle twister.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Java Script Helped me a lot yesterday:

Every modern programing language makes it easy to display a message box with a question and a few stock answers (yes, no, cancel, etc.). And this is wrong. Every programming language should make it easy to display a question with the answers appropriate to the question. Programmers get lazy and try to fit the stock answers – somehow – to every situation. That's how I got this awful message box from Mozilla Firefox:

A script on this page may be busy, or it may have stopped responding. Stop the script now or continue to see if the script will complete.
The message box offered me these two alternatives: OK and CANCEL.

I wish my choices had been: STOP and CONTINUE.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Why am I in bed with Windows?

Last night I suspected I needed to shut my Windows laptop down and reboot, to fix a problem. So I clicked SHUTDOWN and went off to do some other things. I figured I would give the PC a little rest in its "off" mode

I came back an hour later. Windows had not turned the PC off. It wanted to tell me that the MIM program, about which I care not, did not want to stop. So I had to turn it off manually. I then waited ten minutes and finally decided that Windows was not shutting down properly. I had a blue screen, and power was still on. So I pressed the On/Off button. Ten seconds later, power went off. I rebooted. Windows insisted on running a disk check because of the manual shut down. It found no problems, but it took a good eight minutes to check my whole disk.

Then the laptop came up and desired me to install some windows updates. I checked them out to decide what to do, knowing that if I took the updates, I would probably have to reboot again. After I rejected these updates, Adobe Flash and my anti-virus program both requested updates. Oh, F*** them! I just wanted to do some work.

Hey, thanks for listening!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Google Image search:

I occasionally use Google's Image Search, but for me, it's mostly a curiosity. However, I just used it to solve a serious problem. For the jewish holiday of Sukkot, we build a Sukkah, a temporary structure, to eat in, and -- maybe -- to live in, for a week. The structure consists of aluminum poles (8 and 12 feet long) held together by three-way pipe joints. Several of my joints are "frozen" -- the holding screws cannot be coaxed to turn -- so I decided to buy some more.

Web sites that specialize in sukkah materials will sell the joints to me for $15 apiece. I suspected that was much too pricey, so I went to an enormous hardware store to find my joints. At the hardware store, I discovered that what I want are not plumbing joints and not electriccal joints, and not normal hardware store products. My only hope was to find them on the web. I did a series of image searches. I needed to find a picture of the joints I wanted, because I had no idea who might sell them, or what to call them.

The winning search was: pipe structural fittings "allen wrench" .
(I might have used "joints" but I did not think of that.) The picture popped up at The Diamond Aluminum Company, which sells these joints and the same pipes for do-it-yourself construction projects.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

My best playlist ever:

Most Tuesday mornings, I produce a classical music program on WPRB radio from 6 to 8:30 a.m. (Eastern time). You can hear me all over the world. We are on the air at 103.3 FM in much of central Jersey (etc.), but also: You can catch us online at http://www.wprb.com/listen.php, where we offer three easy to record (and even time-shift) audio streams.

I try to put together programs with a lot of variety, good music and good performances. Sometimes I feel that I have created an exceptional playlist. But election day was different: I'm sure I produced my best playlist ever, and now, I'm going to tell you all about it.

My great challenge, which I was unable to solve for days, was: what is classical election day music? I had no idea. But Tuesday morning at 5:20 a.m., I found a theme for my program. No matter who you wanted to win, you felt great pain at the thought of loss; you wanted revenge on the other guys; and you dreamed of unalloyed victory. So that's what it says right in my playlist: WHOEVER WINS: THE PAIN! THE VICTORY!! THE REVENGE!!! I selected music for pain, for pure vengefulness, and for the delight of victory. Here's what I played:

Overture: la forze del destino (Verdi): Fate and vengeance personified in music.

Dissonance quartet, k. 465 in C, 1st mvt (Mozart): Those dissonances were great for the theme of pain.

Ride of the Valkyries (Wagner): On to victory!

der Freischutz, overture (Weber): That free-shot, the bullet that will go wherever it is aimed; great for revenge.

Vallee d'Obermann (Liszt): This music personifies despair. Great for the pain theme.

A song: Ich grolle nicht, from dichterliebe (Schumann): Some of the words: I'm not complaining, even if my heart breaks.

Don Giovanni, overture (Mozart): Revenge!

Funeral march: 1st mvt of symphony #5 (Mahler): The pain.

Requiem, excerpts (Verdi): I played the 'Dies Irae' (day of wrath, day of anger!) and lacrymosa. I used an explosive performance, in which the vengeance of 'dies irae' jumps out of your speakers: The philharmonia orchestra and chorus, conducted by carlo maria giulini .

The Anfortas Wound, from Harmonielehre (John Adams): After a long period of agonizing writer's block, Adams wrote the first movement of his Harmonielehre. After that, he wanted to depict the pain of his writer's block, and he chose to illustrate in sound, the pain of being pierced in the testicles. Very appropriate for my program.

Don Giovanni, cenar teco m'invistasti'. D.G. descends into hell (Mozart):Revenge. I got a little carried away here. I told my listeners that near the end of this music, they would hear the wails of the election loser as he descended into hell. But of course, it was only Don Giovanni wailing. Sorry about that.

A song: Belsatzar, op. 57 (poem by Heine, music by Schumann): Belshazzar curses God, and he doesn't get away with it.

After all that, I felt it was time for a little healing, so I concluded the program with the last movement of Beethoven's 9th.

Please feel free to re-create his program whenever you need it.

Save Energy: Burn Leaves!

Now that I've got your attention, I want to ask: how much energy do we waste by burning leaves? In my little town, I've watched leaf blowers push leaves off of streets and out of parking lots. The blowers burn gasoline of course. Why is it necessary to waste gas to tidy nature up in this way? We have laws limiting the use of water on lawns; why not limit the use of leaf blowers to actual necessity? Many leaves decompose just fine when left on their own.

Full Disclosure: I HATE it when somebody turns on a leaf blower, while I'm trying to record my novel.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

How Detectable is Voting Fraud?

Today's timely posting is by a guest author, JG Fellow.

Today, we are holding elections. On November 5th, we will likely be debating the existence of fraud. I believe that we have the tools demonstrate the likelihood that such fraud has taken place. Throughout the elections, via Pollster.com, I have watched the results of every single state and national poll. I have been struck by the stability of the results over the last two weeks. To be sure, two polls of the same state may vary, but there are few states where the projected winner is uncertain.

Based on this wealth of data, we know what to expect on November 4th, but we are, by no means, certain to get it. Pollsters occasionally miss biases, or run in herds. We witnessed this in the New Hampshire Democratic Primary this year. But New Hampshire stood out as an exception. Most state's primary results followed the pre-election polling.

So how do we evaluate those results that differ from our expectations? How can we tell the fraudulent from the unexpected? By examining the results at the voting precinct level. It is certainly possible to falsify election results. But while it is possible to lie, it is very difficult to lie well. It is incredibly difficult to generate a fake set of data that continues to look real upon scrutiny. How do I know this? Experience.

Both professionally and personally, I have performed hundreds of Monte Carlo simulations. This is a process whereby you define some rules and roll some dice. If I roll a 6, David Ortiz hits a home run. If I roll a 1, unemployment rises. I have simulated baseball, basketball, football, car accidents, occupational injuries and even terrorist activity. The tragedy of my experience is that I can always find some level on which my generated data fails to replicate reality. While my hitters may meet my expectations, Mariano Rivera ends up as an average pitcher. While the average cost of a car accident is correct, the chance of a $10,000,000 car accident is too high. The first, second and third test of my data may look reasonable, but there will always be a fourth, fifth or sixth.

I have faith in my fellow Americans, and even more faith in checks and balances. But most important, I have faith that such fraudulence could not be done in secret. I would urge major news outlets to work with statisticians to validate the reasonability of the outcome of this election, and I look forward to today with no fear that a crime shall go unwitnessed.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Somebody Else's Risk (2):

Ender left a good comment on my post about Somebody Else's Risk. There's an interesting counter-argument to my posting: you could say that since I believe myself a good programmer, I SHOULD take on these life-risk programs, because I will do them better than the other guy. At the time, I instinctively mistrusted this argument. After the many years that have passed since then, I think I know why. It's the nature of computer products that every good one is duplicated many times. People rush to fill every perceived niche to overflowing, whether it's an operating system, blogging software, or an email system. Each time I decide to take the risk of writing software where people's lives are at risk, I am ADDING one more approach to all the others. I'm not doing it instead of someone else, and there's little risk that the software I contribute to will be so good that it chases all the inferior ones away. And the bugs I leave in my software may affect some unlucky person.

Writing software, or doing any work, where the quality affects people's lives, is simply a grave responsibility that has to be taken seriously.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Supernatural Cleaning Methods:

Joyce Wadler has written a delightful piece in the New York Times about getting ghosts out of houses, called Supernatural Cleaning Methods. As you read it, I think you will suspect that you are enjoying it almost as much as the editor who wrote the subheadings.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

She wanted a divorce:

When I was twelve, I read a thin book of funny letters that people had written to lawyers. I remember exactly one letter from this book. Unlike everything else in it, this one caught my attention enough to make it come back to me, every dozen years or so:

I want a divorce. I'm not sure my husband is the father of my children.

Well, duh. Who could be that dumb? At age twelve, I knew the facts of life better than she did. Now why did this letter stick in my mind? Setting aside the possibility that the entire book was fiction – a possibility that never occurred to me in my youth – the letter always bothered me. There had to be some other explanation. Nobody is that dumb.

Perhaps the letter kept coming back to me as a demand that I must solve its puzzle. Well, I think I've solved it. The only fault of the woman who wrote the letter is that she did not have the capability of expression by writing*. I will explain by rewriting her letter, and then I will explicate. I'm adding exactly one word:

I want a divorce. I'm not sure my husband is only the father of my children.

In other words, the woman suspects that her husband is also the father of other women's children. Definitely grounds for divorce! I feel much better now.

* By the way, in 1974, when I needed to hire a hardware designer, I read many resumes, including one that ended thus: I also have the capability of expression by writing. We didn't hire him, even though he was able to design hardware.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Somebody Else's Risk:

Throughout my forty-six year software development career, I have tried to avoid working on products that can kill people if the software has certain kinds of bugs. I deeply sympathize with the programmer of the Three-Mile Island alarm detection system, who failed to anticipate how the alarm terminal would work when the software was overwhelmed by hundreds of concurrent alarms. (The terminal printed a stream of question marks, rather than any sensible error message.) Some years later, I interviewed this fellow for a job; I think he's a good programmer and a nice guy. But an unanticipated disaster really put his work on the spot.

In the current financial crisis, I've been reading complaints about how people must have underestimated the most extreme (very unlikely but real) risks that their deals created. But I believe that most of these people understood the rare risks. They also understood that these risks were other people's risks. (I believe that most of the financiers who brought us to our current crisis are still better off than 99.9% of the US population. For them, this disaster is mostly 'other people's disaster'.)

The bottom line of this meandering introduction is that it's praiseworthy to be concerned, in your work, about risks to others that you may create; but an awful lot of people don't worry about other people's risks. That's human nature, and it's very hard, as China with its tainted milk supply is discovering, to do much about it. And now, my story:

In the 1970's I worked on a computer system, one of the first of its kind, to automate Electro Cardiogram analysis. This work came to me, I didn't choose it. I worked at it carefully, always worried about the chance that my software would cause someone's EKG analysis to produce a false negative. (A cardiologist always reviewed the results of the computer analysis, but you never know: what if the doctor was distracted that day?)

One customer came to us with a special request: that we program our computer to receive EKG data from some old EKG machines the customer already owned. We did not like those machines because the data they produced was very noisy and led to many incorrect results. We pointed this out to the customer. Our customer contact felt that this was our problem. He worked for a big company that manufactured many high tech products, and he brought in the company's top trouble-shooting team to figure out why our analyses, using his machines, were poor. The troubleshooters argued convincingly that there was nothing wrong with our software. The culprit was the noisy data coming out of the old EKG machines. The customer paid us for our work, and then, holy s—t! He set up a service bureau to process EKGs using his noisy machines.

I and my coworkers felt that whatever happened would not be our fault, but the situation really bothered us. Our name, and the prestigious name of the guy who developed the analysis program, stood behind this faulty service bureau. Who was going to die by relying on the quality of our work? I wondered if we had a moral obligation to try, somehow, to expose this faulty service bureau. Any such action could produce nasty litigation, and could only be a desperate last resort. But what should we do?

Our salesman nosed around the industry, talking to cardiologists and other EKG service bureaus. He reported that the poor quality of the analyses by this worrisome service bureau was obvious to everyone. They were getting business, but only of a special kind: medical schools and some hospitals used their system for training purposes, to get people used to processing remote EKG analyses. We breathed a great sigh of relief.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Lefties Rule?

Here's a picture of my new PDA, the Nokia N800. You can easily see most of the “real” buttons on this device. A few more are not quite visible at the top left edge. I've found a game I like to play on this machine that requires quick reflexes. The game is controlled by pressing some of the “real” buttons. I play moderately well, but the buttons I must use are a problem because they are very close together; I often press a wrong one by accident. But here's the real problem: Why was this PDA built for lefties? If the buttons were all on the right, my better hand would play more skilfully. I'm sure the guy who designed the N800 package is a lefty.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Big Foibles

Last July, I blogged about the silly efforts I always make to avoid picking out a thin towel at the fitness club; I prefer newish towels with thick nap that will dry more efficiently. I regarded my efforts to select desirable towels as mere foibles, because it was unlikely that there was any variation in the towels at all.


Today I casually grabbed what was obviously a “thin” towel. It lay flat, without the thick fold I always prefer. I knew it looked thin, but my tired mind said “for goodness sakes, what difference does it make?” And you know what I got? An old, thin towel. Almost napless, a pitiable thing to dry a wet body. From now on, I'm going to follow my own advice.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Entrails of Vacuum Cleaner Bags:

An earring disappeared inside our home, and shortly afterwards, the whole house was vacuumed. I spread out a set of newspapers and emptied the vacuum bag over them. Then I went carefully through the ash, sifting – unsuccessfully – for that earring.

I've hardly ever done that before, but examining vacuum cleaner detritus struck me as a most natural activity. My father did it every the time the vacuum was emptied, when I and my brother were young, because we were little devils about putting small things in inappropriate places. I don't know what he found, but it sure was enough to keep him looking.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Ladies (and men) with Earrings and Earbuds:

From time to time, I uncover some problem in this universe, and I'm pleased when my proposed solution creates new jobs, new work for people, and even new professions. I've done this before, and I might be about to do it again:

My concern is directed to those who love to wear lovely, dangly earrings. People, I hate to be the one to point out the obvious, but your earrings clash hideously with the cheap plastic cords that hang from your earbuds! Have you ever thought about how this clash demeans your excellent jewelry?

The next time you buy earrings, insist on matching earbuds and cords. Color coordination is everything these days, and despite whatever you've been thinking, earbuds are jewelry. I'm serious about this! As a confirmed geek, I hate to see any aspect of electronics detract from anyone's appearance.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Should I join GRUG? Or how about a RUG?

Noblestar has just invited me to join GRUG. Or, they suggest, I might even want to join a local RUG. I think these acronyms are right up there on the embarassment scale, so I hasten to share them with you. I guess they are memorable, anyway. "GRUG" is the Global Rational User Group, and the acronym makes sense when you consider that 'Rational' is a valuable tool for developing complex software. In this case, I plan to remain one of the Global Rational User Non-Group Egalitarians. Just see if I don't.

Construction; and flipping the ticket:

There's a lot of construction at the local University. I saw a sign today on a road that's normally two-way. It said: Warning: One Way Traffic Ahead. Drivers approaching the sign were laughing about having to guess which 'one way' the University had in mind, because there was no arrow.

And speaking of finding our direction, here's Frank Rich on Oct. 4, about how convenient it might be for the Republicans to flip McCain and Pailin, to get more votes. If you don't believe what I wrote about Sarah Palin last Thursday, please believe it now.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Shopping While Jersey:

Dear New York Mayor What'sYourName: I know that this is a difficult time for New York City. You can no longer count on a great flow of dollars from your Wall Street minions. You must want us New Jerseyans to come into New York and spend whatever we can. I specifically remember mayor Giuliani asking us to help out after 9/11.

But I'm also staring, in infinite sadness, at the “no standing” ticket for $105 dollars that was just mailed to me, for picking up my wife next to one of your fine stores. Your zealousness in enforcing parking regulations for brief stops is most shortsighted. My wife and I have lost almost all interest in shopping New York. We will spend our money in New Jersey, where most stores have places to park. Too bad for you! We are disgusted.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Palin in 2012 or 2016:

The pundits are trying to assess how well Sarah Palin did in the debate tonight, but I say: that's not the point. She has just shattered a glass ceiling, and American politics will never be the same. Whatever you think of a woman's credentials for high office, Palin reminded us that television just loves a pretty face. If Palin had more experience and understanding, just put her on TV and she would blow away most men in a presidential race. I'm not the only person who's figuring this out. Palin can spend the next four or eight years in training. She'll still look good, too. She, and a few other pretty women – smarter and more experienced women, I hope – will be the new candidates for president in the coming elections. I just hope and pray that their “TV faces” won't be their best qualifications.

Millionaires of our part of the world, Unite!

This would be an awfully good time for all those executives of Immense USA Companies -- who've earned millions of dollars per year in return for destroying our economy -- to get together and pool some of their dough into funds for rescuing people who can't pay their mortgages. These wonderfully rich people have at least a few weeks to act on their own before people who are losing their mortgages start to feel really nasty.

The failure of the first bailout vote in the House was blamed -- at least in part -- on people's visceral anger against giving these money-suckers any more money. But why should those rich people appear so awful to the public eye? Why aren't they forming very visible organizations to use some of their wealth to rescue some of their, ahem, victims?

Filthy rich people, where are you? Can't you afford to be generous right now? How long do you propose to ponder the question? You may not have a handy $700 billion among you, but you can make a difference.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Greatest Error Messages:

Technologizer had an article on what are claimed to be the 13 greatest error messages of all time. Some of my favorites are missing from the list, of course. The web 404 error is claimed as the most important error, since its ubiquitousness accompanied the world-wide spread of the web itself. I would put this message as a close second:


That's what the control terminal at Three Mile Island displayed when the software was overwhelmed by error messages of a melt-down. I imagine the terminal operator shouting, "Can you be more specific?"

Here are two other messages that Technologizer somehow missed:

"Cannot execute as a child of Basic." (A mainframe error message to a programmer. Reported by Steve Weintraub.)

"There is an error somewhere between the beginning and the end of your program." (a Fortran Compiler message. Most developers know that this particular error is ALWAYS true, it need not be stated.)

Sue Zahmen:

In the 1940's and '50s, we used to send short messages across country for free. I'm talking about Ma Bell Telephone, not ham radio. When I learned about this communication medium, I was so traumatized that I've remembered it ever since. My aunts, stealing from the telephone company!

My two aunts had just flown across country for a visit. We picked them up at the airport and brought them home. Now, they wanted to advise family back on the west coast that they had arrived safely. Long distance calls cost real money in those days. But here's what they did: they placed a collect call. There was a certain etiquette to collect calls that the phone company required. You told the operator your name, the person you wanted to call, and the number to call. Then, while you remained online listening, the operator placed the call and asked, “Do you wish to accept a collect call from X?”

You were required to keep your mouth shut during this interchange. Shouting “It's Edna, I'm okay!” over the operator's question was right out. But my aunts used a well-worn tactic: They told the operator they wanted to call a fanciful person, a made-up name. That way, the people at the other end knew that everything was okay, and they refused to accept the collect call.

You might think that this made-up name was a signal agreed-upon in advance, but no. During the long flight, my aunts were expected to think up a name that would surprise and delight their relatives back west, while also, in some manner of word play, suggest that they had arrived okay, together. I blush to tell you the awful name they asked for on this occasion.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Toss the Pasta Sauce!

Bruce Schneier explains what's really wrong about having the TSA screen for jars of liquid, knitting needles, and the like. His post begins with a TSA agent finding a jar of pasta sauce in Schneier's luggage. He confiscates it and tosses it into a bin full of similar jars of liquids. Schneier does not even bother to state the obvious: if those jars were explosive, tossing another explosive jar into the mix ought to be catastrophic; but no one thinks for a moment that there's the slightest danger.

Schneier moves on to a surprising conclusion. Check him out.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Apple iPhone developers need a Union:

I could stud this blog entry with links, but I won't; you can easily check my facts if you wish. Apple opened the iPhone to third-party applications, making their phone terrifically different from all the other lame phones you can buy. Hundreds (maybe thousands) of developers are preparing apps for the iPhone. Some apps are amusing, some are useful. Some are free, some can make money for their developers, and -- of course -- for Apple.

But there's a catch. To keep the iPhione clean from viruses, malicious apps and disgusting content, Apple has to approve each app. I personally would not risk a few hundred development hours when Apple has the right to tell me "thanks but no thanks" at the very end of the process. But hundreds of software people have taken that risk, and reports are multiplying of what appear to be wholly unjustified rejections by Apple. And there's a common theme: if you want to know for sure why Apple rejected your app, so that you can fix it maybe, you're out of luck. Stare at those tea leaves, you might learn something.

Apple third party developers: you need to join together. Make a guild, or a union, to negotiate with Apple, to tell the whole world when Apple is unreasonable. You need clout. Or you need to forget the iPhone, and get a life.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Prophet of Panamindorah:

Today I'm recommending an audio book to you that I am greatly enjoying. It's the first in a series. The series is: The Prophet of Panamindorah, and the first book is Fauns and Filinians. The author, Abigail Hilton, has imagined a wondrously complex world for the settings of her tales. It sprawls over time and place, even touching down in Florida. Her world is full of imaginary creatures that are fascinating for the listener to imagine. The action is fast and furious, and a sizable handful of characters comes alive in the constant political infighting and intrigues that pepper her tale. It's a really fun read. Click the picture above to hear the promo. Here's the Web Page for Book 1 at PodioBooks. And here's the author's Panamindorah website.

Thank you, Mr. Garbage Man!

My home 'office' has a plastic antistatic mat. It's old, it has been crumbling, and it was time to replace it. I got it out of my room and contemplated how to get rid of it. It was enormous, 45" by 53", and pretty thick. If I just dropped it at the curb, garbage men would never notice it, and it would kill grass.

With difficulty, I rolled it up enough to stick it into an empty garbage can. The plastic mat stuck out way above the top of the can, but at least it was in there. Garbage men are finicky; they know what they are supposed to pick up, what to ignore. Would they take it?

They did, at the first opportunity. Thank you, Mr. garbage man.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Password Problems:

This morning, during my regular radio broadcast, I tried to log in to Google Mail, but my password was not accepted. I tried several times, watching what I typed carefully, in mounting frustration and worry. I knew I was typing the right password! I prepared to tell Gmail that I had forgotten my password; I even made sure I could log into my backup email to receive a message from Google about my password. But then common sense set in. I had no idea what was going on, so I decided to wait until I got home, even though I badly wanted access to my email.

At about the same time, I noticed something else bizarre. I always enter data into a “playlist”, about each piece of music I play. Some of the radio station keyboard keys were producing funny characters with accent marks, instead of the normal punctuation I expected.

Eventually I put two and two together. I was unable to enter my password because the keyboard was in some weird foreign language mode. If I had managed to tell Google a new password, it wouldn't have worked at home. I saved myself a day's frustration by refusing to overreact and “fix” my password right away. And now, I'm reminding myself that passwords can fail due to keyboard issues. To see if I'm experiencing such an error, I can try entering the password in my login ID field, because that field does not have a mask, so I see what I type.

And that brings me to a topic I've mentioned before. It's not so great that password fields mask your input. Unless someone is standing over your shoulder or watching nearby, you are better off seeing the password you type, for many reasons. We almost never have that option.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Baseball: neutral site

Today, I have a few outrageous suggestions for Major League Baseball. First, it's time to do like football, and play the World Series at a neutral site, in a stadium that has either mild fall weather or a dome. The current playoff schedule has pushed the game dates too late, to a point where bad weather can ruin a good competition, washing away the players' pitching and fielding skills. And by the way, team fans will travel to see the series, just as football fans travel to the Superbowl. Using a neutral site will also improve publicity and ratings. Imagine a world series between, say, Milwaukee and Washington, played -- fortunately -- in Los Angeles.

Playing the series at a neutral location eliminates travel dates. The series can be played in seven straight days, or maybe with one rest day after game four. The current format, with two rest days, over-emphasizes good front-line pitching. To get into the playoffs, a team needs a good complete staff, but winning the series requires maybe three fine starters, a closer and two setup pitchers. Fewer rest days will make the series a whole-team affair. I really want to see the hide-bound leaders of basball wake up and make this change.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Fire the Boss ...

John Dvorak's blog pointed to a column by Robert X. Cringely. It's a fascinating column that intelligently covers several topics, but eventually it focuses on how to improve an IT organization while cutting it. His solution is to fire the (likely incompetent) boss.

Cringely reminds me of a time in my career where I and my boss audited a large software organization. We eventually brought a lot of bad news to the vice president of software development at that company, including the fact that the programmers were a C+ group. (He had thought they were A- at least.) His organization was not producing, and hardly anyone realized how far behind schedule they were. He asked us how to improve his organization. We couldn't bear to tell him: he had to go. This was just one more case where you could only improve the group from the top down.

Imagine a really fine programmer coming to interview at this company. They desperately want to hire him, to improve their staff. But he sees that if he takes a job here, he'll be working for incompetent management. He sees that his coworkers won't be very competent, and their work will make his own work more difficult. He could hardly miss all the signs we saw. He won't take the job. When an organization is a mess, you can't fix it from the bottom up.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

I just offered Ed Felton Five Dollars:

Ed Felton has a fascinating new argument about the value of privacy. He looks at situations where people are willing to give away their privacy for very small compensation. Traditionally, experts argue that such actions show that people don't value their privacy. Ed argues differently: If you know that your birth date is readily available, you will probably be willing to sell it to someone for very little. Ed says that if people sell their personal details readily and cheaply, they are showing that they believe their private details are already poorly protected, and thus worth little.

I wonder how Ed values his privacy, especially where security is involved. So I just offered Ed Felton five dollars for the right to publish information about a specific time period when his house will be unoccupied. (You'll see my offer among the comments to his argument.) I'm making a sincere offer, and I really don't know whether Ed will go for it.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

I Gave Blood!

In my life, I've given over eight gallons of blood. But for the last five or so years, I was on a “permanently deferred” list, for alternately failing and passing one of their precautionary blood tests.

Many medical tests are quantitative. You run a test that produces some sort of score, and people decide that a certain score is a pass or fail. They set the scores to minimize either false positives or false negatives, whichever is most awful. In the case of keeping the blood supply clean, false positives are less serious. The blood bank doctor who stopped me from giving blood was frank about this. My test was borderline, but two borderline fails and I was out.

About five years went by, and I passed the test yet again. I started thinking – after all this time, maybe the test has become more precise. I applied to the blood bank again to be allowed to give blood. The doctor agreed that the test had become more accurate and was happy to retest me one more time, and I passed.

Today was the glorious day when I went to the familiar blood room, and observed all the procedures that had stayed the same, and all the procedures that had changed. It was a triumph for me, but also a day of great nostalgia. I have only a few more years to give blood before I'm too old, but I might get to the ten gallon mark.

Here's one of the things that has changed since I last gave blood: Afterwards, the technician placed the usual bandage over the spot where she had drawn blood. She said “Be careful to bend your elbow as little as possible. There's no inflammation there now, but if you bend it a lot, there will be.”
I whined, “How do you remember not to bend your elbow?”
“Oh,” she said, “I just told you that to make me feel better.”

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Intelligently Designed Game of Spore:

Will Wright's game of Spore will be released this Friday and Sunday. The game has had great publicity, and it will rank among the most popular computer games for years. Spore features a faux simulation of evolution, incorrect in many respects; yet it will give its players a sense of how evolution can work. In the game, a few simple rules govern how creatures can evolve. Hordes of people have been tinkering with the game's initial evolution machine, and they have produced a prodigious variety of creatures.

Now here's what interests me:

Kids who are anti-evolutionists will play this game. Children of proponents of Intelligent Design will play this game. Anti-evolutionist grown-ups will play this game. How will it affect their perception of evolution? If you do not believe in evolution, what will you say about this game?

You might just diss Spore, or even try to ban it. Or you might claim that what happens in this game is actually a form of Intelligent Design. But there's no getting around the fact that the game will familiarize people with evolution. And once you get the hang of it, there may be no going back. And don't forget, Spore will be taught in the schools -- informally, even though it's not part of the curriculum -- it's going to be the main topic of discussion for a lot of gamers, for months.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

He stole my lane!

The pool where I lap-swim has five lanes. The most convenient lane, for those of us with bad backs and bad knees, is the one next to the steps leading down into the pool. Yesterday that lane was free, so I came down those steps and started splashing cold water on my head, preparing to take the plunge.

Just then a big old fellow descended the steps and swam away, in MY LANE! I was furious with him. It's easy for two people to share a lane, but he didn't ask, and anyway there were two empty lanes.

We're all club members here, so there's no point making fuss. I shifted to the next lane and started to swim.

When you're swimming many laps, you need something to think about, to make time fly. Boredom is the enemy of any repetitive exercise. Well I had something to think about this time! As I swam my first laps, I kept glancing at my interloper, and mentally grumbling. But an unexpected thing happened: he swam to the far end; he swam back to the stairs; he walked out of the pool and departed, after less than three minutes in the water.

I swiched lanes, even though I had to "break stride" to do it. I wanted my lane back!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Changing Horses in Midstream:

I started to call the Princeton Medical Center. Here's what their contact page says:

1.888.PHCS4YOU (1.888.742.7496)

Those letter-mnemonics are easier to remember, but harder to dial. I had dialed 1.888.PHCS4 when I noticed the numbers in parenthesis. Just in time, I resisted the urge to dial -496, because I realized that the two numbers are different!!! I'm sure they both work. But I've never before seen an all digit phone number paired with a "letter-heavy" phone number, where they weren't the same. I finished my dialing with -YOU. Weird.

By the way, I'm okay.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Hopper Site Endangered! So what?

A New York Times story today reports that new construction on Cape Cod (Truro, Mass) may endanger, even obliterate, a barren view that may have inspired some of Edward Hopper's paintings. Here's the story. A couple plans to build a mansion in the way, and some of the neighbors are complaining. But if you take the idea of protecting such views to their natural extreme, it's ridiculous.

Now I must admit that protecting scenery that has inspired artists might have its good side. Consider David Roberts, whose many, many paintings of Jerusalem and its surrounds are well-known. Preserving all the views that inspired him would imply allowing only about 1,000 people to live within ten miles of Jerusalem. I have no idea how that would affect Middle-Eastern politics, but surely the effect would be profound.

Thanks goodness Rembrandt never found time to come to Manhattan and paint its lovely rural landscapes; we might have had to preserve those scapes even today. Remember the Red Apple's motto: If you can make it here, then Rembrandt must have failed to paint what you're building over.

And what of El Greco's View of Toledo? How much of Toledo do we need to rip down to restore the view that inspired him? And then there's Vermeer's View of Delft. If any artist's inspired view was ever worth preserving, this one is it.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Would I like to buy another watch?

Amazon.com has software at its web site that tries to figure out what I might want to buy. It gives me lots of suggestions. I remember when I bought a really abstruse programming book on general search patterns. Amazon told me that people who bought this book also bought ... the first three Harry Potter books.

Right now, Amazon's recommendation logic has gotten quite annoying. I recently bought a watch. Now, I'm getting email suggestions for great watch bargains. The suggestions are well-targeted to me, except that – Hello?? Amazon?? I HAVE a watch. How many do I need?

Dear Amazon, please suggest more watches to me, in about six years. I might need one by then.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Year-2006 Technology:

A recent ad from Dell computer told me that they are giving away prizes in an online contest. They invited me to enter the contest every day to the end of September. I thought that would be a good idea. Entering the contest took five minutes, with a lot of lines to fill out. That does it, I thought. I'm not entering this contest again, too much work.

Two minutes later I got an Email informing me that I had won one of their fifth prizes, a PowerVault RD1000. Now if you're a lot like me, you would naturally have two thoughts:
  1. Isn't it nice to get instant notification that you've won something?
  2. What the heck is a PowerVault RD1000?
The latter question turned out to be very interesting, since Dell has chosen to use one identifying symbol for a vast line of products. I exchanged many emails with their prize people, and eventually discovered that I had won a backup disk system consisting of a chassis with a USB interface, and an 80/160MB cartridge. (Let's just call it an 80MB cartridge, because the higher number refers to the estimated drive size if you compress everything.)

Now it happens that I recently decided I need 160MB of disk drive backup for my audio files. There's a very sweet recent product that's portable and handy, the Western Digital Passport USB drive. (Several other companies, such as Iomega, make similar drives.) My first reaction was great joy; I did not have to buy that drive, I would use my prize instead.

Except ...

Well first of all, note that the prize drive is half the space I think I need. Disk Cartridge prices are very high for the RD1000, and prices for the Passport drive are remarkably low. The bottom line here is that disk drive prices drop very, very fast over time. The RD1000, a year-2006 product, cannot easily compete with newer disk drives. Now I'm obligated to pay taxes on my prize if I receive it, and its estimated value is $299. The tax on this drive compares closely with the price of newer disk drives, and the newer drives are likely to be more convenient to carry around and use on multiple systems.

This is the most valuable prize I've ever won in a contest, and I turned it down. I'm going to buy a 160MB drive instead.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Counting to a Billion:

In 1964, I wrote many programs for an IBM 7094 mainframe. This was a wonderful machine. It could hold 160,000 characters in its memory, although some of that memory was reserved for hold a small operating system. It could add two numbers together in just over one microsecond. We made that 7094 leap and dance in many different ways.

In those days, you submitted your programming "job" as a deck of punched cards. Some hours later, your card deck, and the computer output, appeared in an "output bin." There was one bin for every letter of the alphabet, because a lot of people submitted jobs to that one mainframe. Operators ran the decks through the computer as fast as they could. Some jobs, of course, took longer than others.

One day my wife and I were talking about counting up to large numbers. One way a growing child discovers mortality is through the realization that in one's entire life, there are numbers you cannot count up to. Counting "one, two, three, four, etc., ... one billion" is right out. That's when I noted that our 7094 could count to a billion in less than an hour. Wow!

Pretty soon we decided to do it. The only drawback was that computer time for the entire university was precious, so I did not want anyone to know what I was doing. If the computer sat in a tight loop adding one to a running total for a thousand seconds, I would probably be caught and banished from the engineering center. So I wrote a program that ran for less than two minutes. The program read in a punch card to tell it what number to start counting from, and it punched a card at the end of the run to use as input to the next run. I submitted my program once or twice a day, and proudly saved all the outputs for years.

After a few few days of these runs -- we might have been up to 403,682 or so -- Tony, the head operator, took me aside.
"You've got a funny program that sits there for two minutes and seems to do nothing. Are you sure it doesn't have a bug?"
"I'll take a look at it," I said, thankful I hadn't quite been busted. I knew I had to change the program so that it looked busy. The problem was that it sat in a tight "add one" loop, so the program counter LED display on the computer console did not change, and the other displays that showed computer activity did not change either.

I modified the program. I made it hundreds of instructions long -- most of them "add one" instructions. But among the adds, I sprinkled computer instructions to make all of the console lights turn on and off. My modified program escaped criticism, and it actually counted faster. The 7094 had "lookahead logic", and it was able to process about 1.5 of my addition instructions at once. (The simpler program, in its three instruction loop, prevented any "lookahead" from occurring.)

So: we counted to a billion. Pretty neat!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Cars are getting too quiet?

Scientific American has an article by Sarah Simpson, with a new worry about hybrid cars. You may not have begun to worry about this one yet. The question is, are hybrid cars too quiet to be safe for pedestrians? The article takes a "wait and see" posture. If you were reading my blog four years ago, you know that for me, car engines became dangerously quiet 56 years ago. With my passion for biking through intersections by relying on sound alone to tell me if they were empty, I was lucky to survive the quieter engines that Detroit turned out in 1952.

I'm over the hump on this issue. Bring on the quieter cars, and - maybe - quieter towns and cities as well.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Free Business Cards:

I ordered some simple business cards so that I could show people how to find my novel online. I was attracted to an ad for 250 "free" business cards. I knew they couldn't be free. I guessed the trick was that they would have a high shipping charge. Little did I know.

First, the website walked me through a design of my card. That was very nice. Then we started the ordering process. Would I like more cards, or better paper, or address labels to go with the cards, or magnets, or pens? All these items were customized to the design I had chosen. There were dozens of optional categories, pages of addiitonal options. Would I like a rubber stamp? Would I like to buy some magazines while I was at it? Would I like printing on the back of the card? Would I like faster shipping?

And last, but not least, get this: Would I like a fully functional, customizable website, designed to match the business card? What an incredible option! I resisted temptation over and over. (Frankly, I think it makes more sense to buy business cards to match my website, not the other way round.)

Shipping was $5.45. I definitely have to explain about shipping. For $5.45, they proposed to take TWENTY-ONE DAYS to ship the cards to me. Shipping times that you would call "reasonable" cost more. Twenty-one days, that's slow shipping. The temptation to pay more for fast shipping was very great, but I figured I could wait them out. I thought it was just a bluff. After all, how do you make a shipment take 21 days, send it around the world by rickshaw?

I purchased these 'free' cards on July 22. On July 31, VistaPrint notified me that the cards have shipped. The cards arrived August 9. I knew it! I called their bluff. That's a lot better than 21 shipping days, and they look good.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Over and Over ...

In Willam Goldman's novel Boys and Girls Together, there's a writer named Adam who has to decide which he should write first: the great American novel, or a potboiler that will make him rich. He decides to do the potboiler first, and there's a mighty painful scene where his publisher's agent tells him he absolutely won't publish the book.

Maybe Adam was lucky. I'm currently recording my novel as an audio book. I did not see this coming, but the main effect of this effort is that I have to read it, and hear it, over and over. I read each page three times before recoding it, and I may record some scenes many times to get them right. After listening to, and editing, every sentence, I listen to the final cut. When the final cut is okay, I submit it to PodioBooks. They modify my tracks a little, adding an intro and an outro. I have to listen to their modified version to make sure it hasn't been munged. Their copying process is excellent, but in fact they have had to apply it to my chapters three times, which means I get to hear each chapter three more times.

I can't imagine how awful I'd feel by now if I didn't actually enjoy listening to what I wrote. No potboilers for me!

Thursday, August 07, 2008

2-way, 3-way, 4-way, 5-way, all-way!

For many years I enjoyed stopping at 4-way stop signs, and their less common 3- and 5-way siblings. (In case any of you have missed it, the idea of these signs is that everybody stops at the intersection; each car enters the intersection in the order that the cars arrived.)

Now, I'm seeing “all-way” stop signs. These are clearly an improvement over the other signs because they solve a manufacturing problem: you make all your signs the same, instead of guessing how many you will need for each of 3, 4 and 5-way intersections. Guessing how much of each option to stock is a bane of marketing and manufacturing.

So why didn't the signs always say “all-way”? Perhaps it took a genius to think of this simplification, but I think that what we see here is an incremental improvement, where the two steps were required. I'm guessing that, thirty years ago, signs saying “all-way” would not have made as much sense. When you know that these signs are replacing the 4-way (etc.) signs, it's obvious what they mean.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Who Died Today?

When I was young, I found it morbid and bizarre that my parents read the obituaries in the New York Times. Many of their friends did, too. Several of them assured me that I, too, would read the obits when I got older.

Son-of-a-gun, they were right. I'm spellbound by the big stories of excellent people who have died, and I'm happiest when they die at ages thirty years and more beyond mine. And of course I always keep an eye peeled for a familiar name. You never know, these days.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Demonstrating against the high cost of gasoline:

As the price of gas rose, there were protests against the new high prices, especially by truckers and those whose livelihood is directly affected. Unless you believe that there's some sort of conspiracy to raise gas prices, you're liable to feel, as I do, that such protests are useless. For example, imagine that a day comes whmn there are a thousand gas gallons left in the entire world; what would be the point of protesting their price?

Nonetheless, there is a situation where protests against high gas prices make sense, and I believe that such demonstrations have already occurred in Europe. We have to mix one more ingredient into the stew: a high tax on gas. Many people believe that high gas taxes force people to conserve, and are thus beneficial. But in a country with high gas taxes, why not protest to lower them, when the price of gas arcs up? I think it's ironic that a well-intended effort to force gas conservation can foster well-intended gas price protests.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Soap Dish Slides in Motels:

You probably all have had this experience, unless you prefer liquid soap: You're staying in hotel where the shower/bath enclosure is all one gigantic piece of plastic. That enclosure includes a little soap dish, maybe two, that was designed by a sadist. Put your bar of soap there, and it slides right down onto the bathtub floor.

I made many infuriating attempts to balance the soap perfectly before giving up. It fell to the floor every time. What crazy person designed those soap dishes?

But at last I found a solution that I'm happy to share with you. Wet a washcloth, fold it up, and you can balance that on the soap dish. Then put your soap on the washcloth.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Ed Foster... Oh.

A notice has appeared on Ed Foster's blog (July 28, 2008) that Ed has died. Ed operated The Gripe Line for Infoworld. You can sample many of his stories there to see who we've lost. Ed was a tireless campaigner for consumer rights. He did a great deal to marshall sentiment against the unreasonable proposed UCITA legislation, which attempts to place consumers totally at the mercy of companies selling products. And he publicized terrible EULAs and warranty policies, shaming many companies into mending their ways.

Ed's death leaves a few open issues on his column, including Yahoo closing their DRM store, leaving those who purchased DRM'd music from Yahoo up the creek without a sound. (If Ed were still here, he would complete that story, as Yahoo has decided to compensate those who purchased their DRM'd music.) Ed also has open stories on Best Buy's warranty support of a Dell computer, the apparent death of customer support for Windows XP, possible copyright abuse in the Embroidery business, and legal issues in the siezure of laptops at US borders; and more.

We're going to miss Ed, and we're going to miss what he's done for us.

Update:Ed Foster was only 59. His family requests that donations be made in his name to the EFF.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

I'm often unprepared:

I don't plan ahead as much as I ought to. I often walk into situations unprepared. But sometimes I think back, in greatest pleasure, to a moment when I took care to prepare, and it really paid off. You'd think that would give me incentive to do better ...

I had volunteered to bring my cappuccino machine to an evening meeting of an organization my wife belongs to. There would be about twenty people, and some of them would want a cup or two of cappuccino or espresso coffee, leaded or unleaded. I was concerned about failing to please them, because I could only make one cup at a time. What if I fell way behind?

For some reason, this was incentive to prepare carefully. I made lists of everything I needed to bring, lists of steps to setup and to make coffee, to clean up. I went over my lists. I imagined everything as carefully as I could. And then the big evening came.

They led me to the room where dinner would be served and coffee made. To my horror, there was no running water, no sink in this room. But hey, I was prepared. I had everything I needed. I went over my procedures, deciding how to deal with the long trek to keep my equipment clean, and to get water.

The evening was a great success. I turned out cup after cup, and everyone enjoyed their Java. Why don't I prepare like that more often?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

“Acting” at a gas station:

There's an Exxon station that's closed, near home. It's at an intersection with US route 1. If you drive through the gas station and turn right, you can avoid the traffic light. And you can do even better than that. If you're going to turn into the gas station, you can drive in the right gutter to reach it. Of course, driving through a gas station, even a closed one, to avoid a traffic light, is illegal. I think it would count as reckless driving.
I saw a big, black SUV do this maneuver yesterday, and I think the driver put on a fine show. First, he passed a bevy of cars waiting for the light to turn green. Then he drove up to a pump. (The station is notably closed. It has no posted prices, no lights on, no parked cars, nothing.) He stuck his head out of the window, looked very puzzled, and then drove on, beating all those other drivers onto Route 1.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Oh, Oh, Beijing:

I don't want to say “I told you so” afterward, so I'm getting on the record now. The Beijing Olympics stinks to me. A totalitarian regime, despite its promises, is cracking down on every attempt at free speech and open media, in order to control the appearance of their Olympics. China is obviously in this arena to prove how wonderful their country and their way of life are, at any expense and effort. And that includes their relentless treatment of the fine, selfless athletes and driven slaves who will represent them.

Many fine athletes will compete at these Olympics. Their selflessness, competitiveness, team spirit and respect for their opponents will be wonderful and good. But from its relentless pursuit of money and manufactured reputation, to its relentless pressure on the athletes, this Olympics will stand for everything that the Olympics should not stand for.

The free press should not cooperate with China's desire for control. And I will have the greatest respect for any athlete willing to give up a chance of a lifetime to stay away from Beijing's polluted air. Those who stick it out and go to Beijing to watch and report on the spectacle will have their whole lifetimes to regret it.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Important Distinctions:

Here's what I think: There are trash sports, and then there are trash sports.

How come I never get to see Miniature Golf on TV? I think it could be fun.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Certain Owl:

We have a lab at work where we test the hardware and software that our client uses in the field. Because of the nature of this project, it was appropriate to put a nice picture of an eagle by the door. Recently we expanded our use of this lab, and it became appropriate to add a picture of an owl next to the eagle. I found nice owl picture and posted it, but I was worried how people would react. (I've had a few bad experiences in the past, where an attempt to add a light touch to some grueling development work was perceived as an insult by some of the programmers.)

In this case I needn't have worried. The day after I posted my owl, someone added another picture: Tweety Bird.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The great secret about cooking with eggplant:

When I decided I wanted to include eggplant in some of my breakfast vegetable dishes, I was overwhelmed by the instructions for preparing this vegetable. Some recipes tell you to roast it until it collapses. OR you slice it and soak it in salt water. Or you puree the seeds and put them back in place. (Okay, I made that one up.) These instructions for dealing PERFECTLY with an entire eggplant prevented me, for a long time, from realizing the obvious:

You can cook an eggplant a little at a time.

Keep your eggplant in the fridge. Cut a few slices and work your will on them. You can nuke a slice and drop it into a sandwich. Cover the cut end of the remaining plant in plastic and put it back in the fridge. Treat your slices like any "almost ready to eat" food. You can enjoy eggplants even if you don't like eggs. They couldn't be easier. Tasty, too.

Monday, July 21, 2008

How to Fix the Allstar Game (baseball):

Most people in the stadium and at home gave up before the low-scoring allstar game ended. It's not interesting enough any more, it needs to be jazzed up. Here's how to fix it:

The National League pitchers should pitch to the National League batters. Ditto the American League. The pitchers will try to grove every pitch, but there will still be plenty of outs. There will be lots of scoring, too. I think seven innings should just about do it.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Raven's Gift:

I'm delighted to tell you that my first novel, Raven's Gift, is now appearing at Podiobooks. This is a fantasy novel, and it's a series of author-read audiocasts. The first five chapters are out now, and all twenty-nine (approximately) will appear, I sincerely hope, in 2008. If you think the book might interest you, please read the description at Podiobooks. And you can check for other news about the book at RavensGift.com.

Podiobooks is a pretty nifty website. Their books are free, although they ask for donations. And they have a good audience. In the first 45 hours, there have been almost 300 downloads of my chapters.

UPDATE #2:I published (and have removed) an incorrect rss feed. Please use this RSS feed.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

I used to hate computers:

A few years after we owned a PC, and I was actually working with IBM PCs, my wife noticed something remarkable: I didn't hate them. I had been expressing my hatred of computers -- for their unreliability -- for years, all the way through the minicomputer era, from PDP-8's to every flavor of Mini I came across.

After she pointed this remarkable fact out to me, I realized what it meant. PCs in the 1980's were not great machines, but they worked ever so much more reliably than all the mini computers I'd ever dealt with. And by the way, if you're old enough to have used mini computers in the 1970's you may not understand why I found them so unreliable, but I'll explain.

In the 1970's I worked for three companies that developed software on many configurations of mini computers. We set up the desired configurations by swapping boards. There were times that I moved these foot-square boards between computers daily. Every printed circuit board was full of genuine, old-fashioned wires. (I remember the first time, years later, that I saw a printed circuit board with no wires at all, just pristine printed circuits and chips. I thought it was a miracle.) These boards slid in and out of narrow slots. The manufacturers did not expect you to move their boards around all the time, they just didn't engineer for it.

When you moved boards, they snagged wires. Or their wires snagged other boards.

There's a great irony here. Those old computers had such simple operating systems that it was child's play to configure a machine after you changed its boards. Often you did nothing at all, you just ran software that knew which boards where on the computer. But snagging those wires made the computers behave undependably. I never wanted to entrust my source code to any of them.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Modcomp: Quarterly Accounting:

Gosh it's fun reminiscing about Modcomp. Now a bit about their accounting. Modcomp calculated their financial position each quarter. As a result, they were hyper about shipping as many mini-computers as they could, before the end of each quarter. Before a machine could be shipped, it had to pass their own quality tests.

We learned that we should ONLY allow Modcomp to ship a machine to us during the second month of a quarter. In the third month, they would ship ANYTHING if you let them. If you took delivery during the first month of a quarter, you got a machine so sick that they had been unable to ship it in the third month of the previous quarter.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Days of reboots ...

Last Wednesday, I wrote about how we got knocked off the web because a Windows Security patch was incompatible with ZoneAlarm anti-virus software. Three anxious days later, ZoneAlarm, working with Microsoft, sent us the fix. I don't blame either company for this mess, these things just happen. But I do blame Microdaft for something.

ZoneAlarm recommended a temporary fix: remove the Microsoft security patch. Now when Microsoft installed that patch, they rebooted my computer. And when I uninstalled it, I had to reboot. For three days I had to remove the security patch, because each day I removed it, MSC put it back. And we're talking about three computers, all doing the same thing.

When Microsoft installs something on my PC, if I uninstall it, I expect Microsoft to guess that I might know what I'm doing; they could ask before putting it back again. Normally I run Windows XP for weeks without rebooting. The last three days have been ridiculous.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Just Give the News Please:

Today I want to bring your attention to a particularly descriptive sentence in the New York Times sports section. This might also be a good time to mention that the Times seems not proofread its paper as carefully as it used to.

The writer, Alan Schwartz, discussed issues related to the MLB's treatment of concussions. The Mets' player Ryan Church has had two (I think) concussions this year. He has been cleared to play several times and then has obviously suffered more post-concussion symptoms. Currently he is not playing. For me, concussion is a very dangerous injury with quality-of-life implications, and I always hope it will be treated carefully. The writer (with the help perhaps, of some befuddled Times employee), described Church's current predicament like this: "It is questionable whether he will return to play this season is questionable." I think that just about says it.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Sniffing Out Computer Trouble:

I've worked with computers for forty-seven years. I'm a software person, a programmer. I've learned an awful lot about hardware, operating systems, the Internet, and major software applications, but I'm not an expert on any of these. Whenever there's something seriously wrong with my computer, I'm likely to throw myself on the mercy of gurus, or make desperate calls to my vendor's technical support people. But – you know – working a lot with computers, you develop a sensitivity to problems and their causes. Take this morning, for example:

I woke up to find that my laptop could not access any web sites. When that happens, I open a DOS box and try to “ping” Yahoo. If the ping fails, I restart my DSL modem and my Router. But today, “ping” worked fine. That meant I could access both a DNS computer and Yahoo itself. (The job of DNS computers is to remember the “hard address” of named computers. When I try to ping Yahoo, a DNS computer tells the ping program to talk to [].) And yet, Firefox could not find Yahoo. What was going on?

We've had a bunch of forced upgrades from Microsoft lately. I became convinced that one of these upgrades had knocked me off the net. This was the “sensitivity” step. I had no solid evidence, but I was sure I was right. Now I asked myself: what if I'm right? The whole nternet is abuzz with this disastrous security update, and they're talking about how to fix it. But I have to get on the net to see that.

We have three Windows computers. (Pause here for sympathy.) I rushed to the second one, and it had just rebooted from a MSC upgrade. It had the same problem. I tried the third. Miraculously, it was able to access the Internet. Now at this point I remembered another part of the puzzle: Right now, the Intenet is experiencing an amazing upgrade that coordinates changes by 81 companies, to fix a security problem in the way that DNS name servers work. I felt I was in a hurry. Microsoft could push its fix on this third computer and knock it off the net at any moment. So I went to Google News and searched for “DNS patch.”

And I found my problem, but with all my “experience” I was still lucky. A little item in Google news stated that Microsoft's DNS patch had knocked users of ZoneAlarm Anti-virus (that's me) off the Internet. ZoneAlarm recommended uninstalling a particular Microsoft patch for now, and that's how I've gotten my laptop back on the Internet. I was lucky to find this out. I think that ZoneAlarm ought to post this problem on their front page, but instead they are discussing it in a forum that I might never have noticed.

How do 'ordinary' users survive problems like this? Maybe ordinary users don't use ZoneAlarm ...

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Ginger Coffee:

Today I boiled a few slices of ginger for ten minutes, then used that ginger water to make coffee. Ginger is not the most natural flavor to combine with coffee, but the results were pretty good. Next time I try this, I'll add a little hot pepper as well, and let you know.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Little Foibles:

It's amazing how distinctive, original and different people are. There are thousands of ways we each set ourselves apart from everyone else. When you see strangers who look alike and are had to tell apart, you cannot begin to guess how amazingly different they will seem, when you have better knowledge of them.

I mention this because of one of my original little foibles. It's more amusing than embarrassing, so I can tell you about it.

When I swim at the health club, I try to follow their request to use only two towels. One towel gets soaked underneath me in the steam room, leaving just one ordinary-size towel to dry me off. I want a towel with a thick nap, because a thin-napped towel will not absorb as much water. The towels are folded and stacked on shelves in many tall piles. I choose a towel that has a loose fold. A tightly folded towel is more likely to have a thin nap. The club has hundreds of towels. It stands to reason that some of them are older than the others. Those will be the worn-out towels with the thin nap, that I wish to avoid.

Now sensible as that all sounds, here are some facts: I have never actually observed a towel with a thin nap. And it's perfectly possible, when folding a towel, to fold it very flat or loose, regardless of its nap. So my care, in choosing a loose-fold towel, is utterly pointless. But just to be on the safe side ...

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Those Muddy Clods:

You remember I told you about this patch of grass that the university covered with packed gravel, and then dug up? Well the dirt clods are still there, only after some rain, they look pretty ugly.

Now I know that those of you who read my blog regularly suspect the worst of me: that I would prefer not to know what's going on there, so that I can muse about it instead. Frankly, I suspect that of myself. So when I saw a university workman get out of his worktruck near the dirt clods, I was delighted to ask him about the 2,500 square feet of dirt.
“Do you know why they put gravel down here and then plowed it under?” I asked.
“No, I'm puzzled. It looks like someone screwed up here.”
“Is there someone I can call, to find out what's happening here?”
He got a faraway look in his eyes, and he said, “Oh. There are so many departments ...”

So for now, we'll have to muse.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Modcomp again: Shipping in Place

One of the things that might have caused accounting trouble for Modcomp was its practice of "shipping in place." Occasionally they would ask us if we needed to receive a computer on schedule. If we didn't need it yet, because all our projects were behind schedule, they might offer to "ship it in place." This mysterious phrase means that they assured us the computer was all ready, and they billed us for it, but they did not ship it. This practice might have allowed them to accrue revenue for that computer. I do not remember what we did with these bills. We might have ignored them until we really wanted the computer, or (I hope we never did this) we might have passed the bill on to our actual customer for payment.

The thing is ... you always wondered whether there really was a computer, all fixed up and ready to ship, in some bay at Modcomp, with our company name on it.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Swimming is good for me:

Swimming in a swimming pool is good for me. Really. Swimming strengthens so many muscles, with so little strain, and burns so many calories. I have to keep reminding myself about this, especially after today.

I was swimming in my favorite lane, at one edge of the pool. About halfway down the lane, peering underwater, I could see what looked like a small rusty bolt screwed into the bottom of the pool. I don't know when I first noticed it, maybe a long time ago, but I certainly saw it there last week. Today in midlap, I realized that this thing could not be a bolt. There was no imaginable need to make a hole at that place in the pool, nor to screw a bolt into a hole there. So it must be some object lying on the bottom of the pool.

I like to retrieve junk from the pool bottom. I float very well, so to go down to the bottom, I have to do something unintuitive: I expel all the air in my lungs and dive down. I did that and came up with a buffalo head nickel. I have quite a few of these, but the one I pulled off the pool bottom is different: it is almost flat. Somehow, all the embossed detail has been eaten away. Looks like the weird chemicals in the pool have done a number on this nickel, disfiguring it while it lay on the bottom. And how rapidly? I don't want to think about it, because: Swimming in the pool is good for me.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

More about Modcomp:

In my previous post about Modcomp, I mentioned that -- as far as I know -- they were the only mid-70's computer company that routinely revised its computers by replacing chips and rewiring wires. All of Modcomp's competitors made upgrades and hardware fixes by replacing entire boards. (We're talking foot-square boards, there was less miniaturiation in those days.) Modcomp's approach was much more flexible and dynamic, but -- let's be frank -- it was wrong.

First, as I mentioned, Modcomp issued corrections every week. At that torrid pace, you have to suspect that they were introducing problems as fast as they fixed them. There could not be time to run careful tests on each week's combination of fixes before publishing them. Even if the fixes were good, they still had to be performed correctly on your computer. You had to hope that every wire was rewired correctly, and it's easy to attach a wire to the wrong pin.

Second, Modcomp had to perform most of the wiring changes for its customers. They paid a lot to get the rare people who knew how to do this fieldwork and were willing to travel, and to try to be deadly accurate. Paying maintenance guys to swap boards was cheaper, simpler and safer, and required far less qualified people.

Now here's an interesting note. Our company agreed on a set of critical changes with Modcomp that required an entire forty hours of rewiring. They sent a young woman to us, to make these changes. They told us they had learned that men were too impatient to do a lot of rewiring accurately. All their top repair people were women.

Friday, June 27, 2008

A software company catches fire:

My mid-1970's computer company caught fire and burned, for possibly as much as twenty seconds. If you're wondering, I can assure you: you never want to experience any kind of malicious fire.

In those days we used electrostatic printers. They spilled a fixer on special paper and the printer burned dots into the papers. The print stayed visible for a year or two before fading into uselessness. The fixer was nonflammable. But apparently, if a tiny leak allowed it to form a cloud over the printer's power supply, eventually it would start a flash fire. The fire consumed all the oxygen in the building very quickly, and after those first twenty seconds it probably just simmered a bit.

It was our practice to run 500 page printouts overnight, so the fire happened about 2 a.m. with no one there. The guy who left at 1 a.m. said "Gee, I wish I had been there, maybe I could have done something." Had he been there, he probably would have died.

I arrived the next morning to find mini-computers smoking in the parking lot. Firetrucks were there, and the windows were black with smoke. A new employee started work that day. He stood there looking at the mess. I would have understood if he had quit on the spot, but he stayed and worked there for four years.

The company survived the fire because, one week before, they had shipped a brace of computers and software to a prime customer. If those computers had been caught in the fire, they could not have been shipped and there would have been no cashflow cushion, nothing to tide us over until insurance money came in.

Everything smelled of smoke. There were plastic knobs in the ceiling to adjust vents, and the knobs nearest the fire now looked like stalactites. The computers closest to the fire looked just awful. But their only problem was that their plastic exteriors had melted. New plastic was put in place, and we used those machines for years.

Several Modcomp machines were twenty feet from the fire, and they worked fine afterwards. But the Modcomp company was kind enough to warn us that these computers would all fail disastrously after about three months, because the acid smoke had caused uncorrectable damage to their printed circuit boards. Their machines all failed as predicted, but there was insurance money to replace them.

We did no programming for weeks. Removable disk packs -- lots of them -- had to be opened and cleaned. Card decks -- thousands of punch cards -- had to be cleaned. Everything had to be cleaned. After about six weeks the office stopped smelling of smoke, and we started to program again.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Modcomp: Chips and Wires ...

In the mid 1970's, my company used mini computers made by a company called Modcomp. This was no ordinary company. For one thing, I remember hearing that one or two of their executives was wanted for accounting fraud. For another, the names for the Modcomp computer instructions were designed by an alien from outer space, and were generally less mnemonic than for other computers. Typical instruction names in those days were: JUMPL (jump to another address if result is less than zero); LB (load byte); ADD (add). In Modcompese, I'll bet you wouldn't guess what the SUM instruction did; that's right, it SU-btracted, storing the result in M-emory.
But that's not important now. Modcomp, unlike all of its competitors, built their minicomputers with chips that could easily be removed and replaced. (Take just a moment and savor the fact that in this, Modcomp differed from ALL of its competitors. Perhaps they knew something that Modcomp didn't know.) Chip replacement made it easy for Modcomp to upgrade machines and fix computer bugs, and they issued correction sheets all the time. Typically a bug was fixed by replacing a few chips, removing and rewiring a few wires. (There were printed circuit boards in the 70s, but typically every mini had lots and of real wires as well.)

At that time my company was developing software for a large oil company to control waste in a refinery plant. We bought the Modcomp mini-computers, sold them to our customer, and held on to them for many months while we developed the software for them. One day our customer mentioned a contract clause we had totally ignored: "You're keeping the computers up to date, right? All the upgrades and bug fixes?"

There was an awesome mound of fix-sheets in our director's desk drawer that we had never applied. He sorted through these, suspecting that some of them must be obsolete already. Eventually we forced a meeting with our customer and the director of the Modcomp fixups division, to decide what fixes must be applied, both now and in the future.

The Modcomp guy was proud of the intense rate at which his company issued fixes. He saw this process as insurance that the computers were as good as possible, although I suspect you will come to a different conclusion. At the meeting, discussion focused on the amount of time needed to take a computer out of service to apply each weekly batch of fixes. Finally our director confronted the Modcomp guy: "You're telling me that we'll have to take our computers out of service more than forty hours a week to keep them current?"
After some hemming and hawing, the Modcomp guy agreed. It was an astounding moment. Our customer agreed that we could apply only the most important fixes, to be determined by Modcomp, so that we could finish writing our programs for them.

I wonder how many fixes were added after the computer went into production at the customer plant. They wanted to run 24/7.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Watch habits:

last Last Thursday's blog entry was about shifting my watch from my left wrist to my right. I can see already that this change in a life-long habit will be harder to manage than learning to thread my belt in the opposite direction. My new wrist position conflicts with three other life-long habits, two of which I'm happy to mention here.

What do you do when you're not sure that you remembered to put on your watch? When this thought hits me, I run my right hand up my left arm to feel for my watch. All that does now, is to give me a better view of my right wrist.

Do you take your watch off to wash dishes? I don't. But to be safe, I've developed a habit of keeping my right hand more in the water, and my left hand more out. My watch runs more risk of getting wet now.

But, some of you will ask, isn't your watch “water resistant”? It is, but what does that mean? I imagine myself writing a letter to Cadex saying, “My watch got wet and now it doesn't work.” And Cadex writes back to me, “Oh, our watches aren't that water resistant.”