Wednesday, April 30, 2008

You can't cool coffee in a glass straw:

The Daily GizWiz show #341 discussed a compact gadget for making coffee called the Java Wand. It's a glass straw with a filter. You pour boiling water over the coffee grounds, and when you think the coffee is brewed, you drink it through the glass straw, enabling its filter to separe you from the grounds. In essence, it's a compact French Press.

It works. It will be terrific for travel, and I'm delighted to own one. But I've found a slight issue with using it. Fresh-brewed coffee is pretty hot. You usually start to drink it from the spoon you stir it with. The coffee that comes up through the straw is pretty hot at first, and the only way to pull coffee through that straw is into your mouth. Of course, you could wait longer for the coffee to cool, but then it will also brew longer, because it's still in contact with the grounds. You have to like a strong cup.

Update: Yes you can! It's a small matter of skill to cool coffee in a glass straw. You suck up a strawful of coffee, hold that coffee in the straw a few moments, then suck it into your mouth. In fact, it's very effective to use the same company's Tea Wand to cool a hot cup of coffee.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Expertise ...

I'm a fine shopping cart shover. I can read the ripples and rambles of the tarmac. I can judge whether there's a wind factor. And then I can give a great shove, and park my cart in a shopping cart bay that's forty feet away. And this is a sport, mind you, where you can never afford to miss. I would never, ever, want to hit a car.

Today as I put my groceries in the car, I heard a voice saying “I'll take that.” A supermarket employee was collecting carts, but he was thirty feet away. I considered walking my cart over to him, but that would be too easy. A mighty shove would make the cart go to him, but frankly, it would be insulting to force anyone to catch a highspeed cart. I studied the ground between us and gave just the right soft push. The cart ambled to him and he caught it, giving me a salute with his free hand.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Rolling Around ...

If you have a station wagon type of car, or a hatchback, or some vehicle with an inside flat platform, you know one of the most annoying sounds in the world: when a bottle rolls around back there. Now I was sure there was nothing back there, nothing at all. I bought ten lemons, put them in a bag and stuck them in back while I drove to my next destination, a ten minute ride.

And I started hearing those rolling noises. No matter how gently I tried to drive: roll, roll, roll, bang, roll, thump.

I tried to figure out what it was. Had I left a juice bottle back there? A two-liter soda? As I drove, the noises got worse and worse. As soon as I could park, I rushed back and opened the tailgate to look.

The lemons had rolled out of their bag. All ten of them had been rolling about in every direction, bumping the car frame on both sides, in the front and the back. I recaptured the lemons and all was fine.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Cadex, Twelve Alarms, and Parkinson:

Parkinson's best known “law” is that work expands to fill all of the available time. This law has many corollaries.

Recently my digital watch broke. The backlight got stuck in the “on” position and drained the battery. And that was a watch with an expensive battery that is difficult to replace. I had owned two digital watches with the same firmware. The watch logic had a serious bug, and the user interface caused a number of problems. So I went to the web to find some distinctively different watch.

Long ago, the watch to hunt for was one with a data bank, a watch that could remember, say. a hundred phone numbers. I owned a Seiko watch like that in the 1980's. You programmed it by running a PC program, and then holding the watch up to the screen so the PC could download to it. But my PDA is much more handy at remembering data. In fact, a PDA renders pointless, much of what a digital watch might do. This time, I considered buying a watch that alerts you whenever you are in a wireless hotspot. I could really use that capability. But that particular watch had no alarms. I know from experience that I really need watch alarms, I use them all the time. My last watch had five alarms.

So this is what I bought: A 12-alarm watch. This cool baby is aimed at a specific niche market: people with serious medical problems and a lot of daily medication. I'm not in their niche, but I know a great watch when I see one! In addition to the 12 daily alarms, it also stores emergency info such as your doctor's name, medical alert data, allergies, and even (I wouldn't touch this!) your social security number. This watch is thoughtfully designed. The main display uses large fonts for ease of reading. There's an easy way to turn all active alarms on and off at once. The user interface to program the watch is a snap to use. And the watch character set contains only the most useful punctuation marks, so that it's less cumbersome to cycle through the whole character set to select the next letter.

But here's the interesting part. Now that I have twelve daily alarms instead of five: I need them. I'm trying to keep two alarm slots free for temporary needs, but it is easy, so easy, to set up the remaining ten. I need wake-up alarms, a vitamin pill reminder, another medical reminder, a daily exercise reminder, a daily blogging reminder ... you get the idea. Daily stuff -- that I used to try to remember the hard way -- now needs its own alarm.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Here's a standard for what is Good in Art. Or not::

Warning: tough thinking ahead!

Good art has lots and lots of logical, textual, emotional and cultural interconnections: both internal, within itself, and external, to all of our experiences and to the world around us. The connections enable us to enjoy resonating multiples of meaning. Good Taste in the viewer is (in part) the ability to perceive and experience many of these interconnections.

The reason there is also "no such thing as good taste" in art is that anyone who falls in love with something and experiences it over and over eventually finds an enormous amount of interconnection in it, and deeply enjoys, let's say, the simple woven basket better than I can appreciate Mahler's 9th symphony. If I spent hundreds of hours viewing a single painting, say, Christina's World, always finding new things in it, relating it to my moods, current events, and a philosophy of life, you would have to say I'm having a complex, deeply artistic experience. An experienced reader of, say, James Joyce is unlikely to have a more complex or more satisfying artistic experience than that; even though the novel she reads displays such depth of interconnection on its surface.

The person who experiences some art HAS to bring the connection-making ability to it; Joyce may provide more to work with, but the viewer of any sort of art may bring a nearly infinite connection-making ability to it. Since the list of possible connections is so great, no artwork can be certain to offer a deeper experience than any another.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A Red-Eye Flight Pleasure:

You know how it is when the plane lands, and at once everyone is zinging somebody with their cell-phone?

We landed at Newark around 6:30 a.m., and nobody made a phone call. The Peace! the Quiet!

Sunday, April 13, 2008


What do you think about getting rid of all those incandescent lightbulbs and replacing them with CFLs? It's a good idea to save all that energy, but I shudder to think of the overall cost. Maybe the cost will be good for the economy. I'm worried about all the mercury those bulbs will put into our environment. And let's face it, a lot of CFLs produce awful light. You can't even trust the ratings on these bulbs. I have a few that are supposed to be the equivalent of 135W incandescent, that look more like 60. But what really fascinates me is the cost of converting houses to use them:
  • Some people like to use dimmer switches. CFL dimmers are still problematic, and, I think, not very compatible with incandescent sockets.
  • CFLs are relatively large, and many sockets won't fit them. I will have to replace some lamps when I can no longer get incandescents, either because they cannot fit the slightly wider base of the CFL, or because CFLs are too long for the lamp.
  • We have a recessed bathroom lamp/fan that CFLs don't fit in. A replacement will cost about $100. I'm not much of a do-it-myselfer. Paying a handyman to enlarge the recess in the ceiling and install the replacement will cost more than the replacement lamp.
  • Now let's talk chandeliers. We bought a house that has an 8-light chandelier, and also a decorative 3-bulb light. Both use small decorator flame tip 40W bulbs. I suspect that the CFL replacements for these delicate little flame tips (I think they do not exist yet) will look ridiculous. There's a pro and a con here: some people whose chandeliers ALWAYS looked ridiculous will throw them out rather than populate them with “dainty” CFLs. Some people will do the same to truly beautiful chandeliers.
  • UPDATE: Thanks to Patrick (see comment #1 below) for describing another situation that's not suitable for CFLs: lights that must cycle on and off a lot, shortening their life span. Eventually there will be low-energy lights to meet our every need, that will push incandescents into extinction. But when?
Maybe there will be a black market for flame tips. I think that the CFL story is a cautionary warning for the future. It's time to stop usig incandescents, but the decent replacement is not manufactured in quantity yet. It will be the same for oil, and for many other things we must stop using to preserve the earth. How will we make do until the effective replacements arrive?

Friday, April 11, 2008

Assaulting United's Red Carpet:

Stupid Elitism makes me see red. That's why the United airport announcer really got my attention in LA when he invited first class and business passengers to “walk the red carpet” onto the plane. There really was a red carpet. It was about three feet long and eighteen inches wide.

You know those short poles they use in airports to create mazes for us to walk through? Each pole has a ribbon you can pull out and attach to another short pole to make a barrier. Well United used those maze poles to make two short alleys to walk up to exactly the same place, where one guy checked all the boarding passes. The alley on the right had the red carpet. A sign announced that the red carpet alley was for first class, business class, fancypants class and something or other else. “Economy” was supposed to go down the left alley.

After calling all the Elites, the announcer cried “seating group one”, and those sheep all went down the left alley. Then he called “seating group two” which included me. Now I was eying that red carpet. I'm going to cross it, I told myself. Why not? And so I did.

As I came up to the boarding fellow, he said, “You're not supposed to walk there!”
“What difference does it make?” I asked.
He checked my boarding pass and said, “You're okay, you're okay, go ahead.” But he pulled out a ribbon and sealed off the path to the red carpet.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Avenue WHAT?

I'm working at a small city in southwest Arizona. The land around the city is pretty featureless and desolate, flat sandy earth and occasional ranges of rubble mountains. When the city fathers and mothers laid this city out, they had the foresight to build outlying roads to facilitate development. This sort of geography militates against road names like "high view road" or "bubbling spring parkway" or even "river road." But still, I think it takes a great lack of imagination to name a big road:
Avenue 8 1/2 E.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Reading a message backwards:

In Windows 2000, if you want to remove your flash memory from a PC, you click a teensy icon and a message appears on the screen. It's a long message, hard to comprehend at once. It either tells you that it's okay to remove the flash momory, or that it isn't. [And when it isn't ... don't get me started. The cat and mouse game you play with Windows to figure out WHY IT ISN'T is revolting.]

It's remarkable how much this bit of user interface has improved in Windows XP. Depending on whether or not it's okay to remove the flash memory, you hear different sounds, and the message appears on different parts of the screen. You know in an instant whether it's okay to pull your key.

I wanted it to be that easy in Windows 2000, so I hit on a strategem. I click on the teensy icon and wait for a message to pop up on the screen. I point my eyes to the right of the screen, and when the message appears, I check whether the last word is 'system'. If it is, I pull my memory out. I don't care what the rest of the message says.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Your Vegan Mother:

I'm working far from home. Yesterday we were told that our working hours would make it impossible to go out and shop for food during the day, or to go to restaurants for lunch or dinner. We talked about bringing in substantial snack food, but made no definite decisions. I like to shop for food, so I bought a batch of stuff. Looking at my purchases, I really hoped that I would not be the only person bringing food. I'm on a low cholesterol diet, and my choices were basically this: the food your Vegan mother would like you to eat.

Fortunately I was not the only snack-bringer. We have a great smorgasbord to tide us through the days, and -- of course -- my choices did not duplicate anyone else's.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Comma Splices, Grammar Girl and Scott Sigler:

About a year ago, Scott Sigler published a novel, and he invited Grammar Girl to critique it. She reported that his writing was riddled with comma splices. Apparently she chastened him, because she says that his newest book, Infected, is rather free of this grammatical error. Sigler is a successful writer, so I hope he did not cave in too much. Comma splices can be very good for fiction.

The term “comma splice” refers to a compound sentence whose elements are connected by nothing more than a comma. Here’s an example:

She wanted something to drink, she must look for Allan, she had a lot to do, she mustn't just stand there and think.

English supposedly requires that you connect compound clauses with conjunctions, or else separate them properly with periods or semicolons. Let's look at a few “corrections.”

She wanted something to drink. She must look for Allan. She had a lot to do! She mustn't just stand there and think.

That's proper English. But it's slow. Those full stops slow everything down. Sometimes that's the effect you want. But in this case, the writer wants the woman to think fast, so the writer wants the reader to read fast.
Now let's try some conjunctions:

She wanted something to drink, but she must look for Allan, and yet she had a lot to do, so she mustn't just stand there and think.

That's really awful. Maybe we need two sentences:

She wanted something to drink, but she must look for Allan. She had a lot to do, so she mustn't just stand there and think.

That's not so bad, but to my mind, it's a lot weaker than the comma spliced version. It's not easy to find the right conjunctions for some sentences. In fact, sometimes there is no correct conjunction! You might argue that I started with a poorly written sentence that’s not easy to fix. But I think the original sentence has a rhythm to it, a rhythm that I ruined with those pusillanimous corrections.

Long live the comma splice! (In English, at least.)

Saturday, April 05, 2008

UBS Rejects Call to Split Off Ailing Investment Unit:

Some day, computer programs may be good at scanning news stories to decide which ones you would like to read. But they won't just scan the story titles. I have a fascination for news story titles that would be hard for a computer to parse. Look again at the title of this entry. Is it about something that the "UBS Rejects" are doing? Or is it about something UBS is doing? Which word is the verb? Notice how these two alternatives imply very different stories.

If you're curious: 'rejects' is the verb.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Music is Getting Louder. Again:

In the 1970's there was a rush to use electronic instruments in pop music. Most "real" musical instruments produce notes that grow softer after they are sounded. Play a piano note and you'll see what I mean. But electronic instruments can sound an entire long note at the original volume, they do not have to decay each note into softness. Recordings took advantage of this effect to make music MUCH louder. Up to a point. After all, once you've fully exploited this trick, what more can you do?

The answer is, you can fiddle with a recording to make every single note as loud as possible. here's an article complaining about this new trend. It's a great pity. Loud, loud music is bad for our ears. And much subtlety in music comes from variations in volume. The article (see above) quotes Geoff Emerick, engineer on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album, as follows: “A lot of what is released today is basically a scrunched-up mess. Whole layers of sound are missing." It's got to be awful to remove all this art to make a loud noise.

I'll be posting infrequently this April. I plan to resume daily posting in May. You do have other blogs you can read, don't you? Carry on!

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Vinyl “78” Records, Part Two: Trauma.

My oldest cousin was going away to Israel for a long time, and he decided to give me all of his classical recordings, albums of 78's. He did not live close to us, but the next time we drove from Long Island to the Catskills to visit my Grandma, we detoured to his home in New Jersey to pick up two big boxes of sets of 78's. We placed them on the floor of the car's back seat, and off we went. When we got home two weeks later, many of the records had broken in two or otherwise shattered. They had not been protected from the minor bumps from a moving car. I knew we could have done better. I offered many recriminations, to both my father and myself, but every one of them was unspoken. I sadly chucked about half of the albums. My cousin's taste in music differed greatly from mine, and I was painfully curious about all the music we threw away. You might say that my taste in Romantic music was shaped by the composers whose music survived that journey, Shostakovitch among them. What if the other records had survived instead?

On to my next traumatic experience with 78's:

Three years later, I was studying bassoon. My lessons took place at my teacher's home. I was playing in an orchestra, and I had to learn one of the striking solos in the orchestral bassoon repertoire. In those days (the late 1950's), the classical repertoire was fairly fixed. A professional orchestral musician could expect to spend almost all his time playing 200 or fewer pieces, and as a teenager, one learned all the solos in the standard repertoire to be ready to face them. One could buy books for this purpose: All the orchestral bassoon solos, All the orchestral oboe solos; All the orchestral french horn solos (for up to four horns at once).

My teacher wanted me to know the exactly perfect way to play this solo. He was the first bassoonist of the New York Philharmonic, but that did not mean that he felt he played all solos in the very best way. He explained to me that he had collected recordings of all the great bassoon solos played by other bassoonists. Whenever he found a performance of a solo he thought was just right, he would save the 78 record containing that solo, and throw away the rest of the album! (In this, he was like Charles Darwin, who, when he found a passage in a book that he wanted to keep, would tear out those pages and chuck the rest of the book.)

My teacher led me across the room to a rectangular storage unit that also served as a low bench. He opened the cover and stood there in shock. It was obvious from the ripped up papers and the shards, that his four year old son had crawled into this bench, played in it, and destroyed every single 78. My teacher was so upset that he was not even angry. He was just sick. At my age – an empathetic sixteen – it was almost unbearable to stand next to such an unhappy man. Ah, those 78s.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Vinyl “78” Records, Part One:

Do you have a hard time managing all those little CDs? Have you ever figured out who likes to make horrible scratches on them? Do you remember the long-playing, foot-wide “33” records, so easily scratched, that preceded them? Or the little “45” records with one song on each side?

Before all those, there were 78's. They were about the same size as 33's. They scratched so easily that hardly anybody worried about scratching them. They also shattered much too easily. You can fit Beethoven's 9th symphony on one CD. Or, you could also fit it on nine or ten 78's.

By the way, these numbers all refer to the number of rotations per minute each record makes on the turntable: 33 1/3, 45, 78. If the turntable spins too slow or too fast, the music slows down or speeds up, and the pitch goes down or up as well. I hope you've had the experience of playing a 33 at the 45 speed, it's quite exciting. I remember when WQXR played almost an entire Haydn symphony at 45. I listened, incredulous. Was there nobody at the station to hear that no orchestra could play that fast, that no oboe could hit such high notes? The music dropped to 33.3 without warning in the last movement. I suspect that the engineer suddenly noticed that the symphony was going to end many minutes too soon, and figured out why.

I occasionally played a 78 at the 33 speed. I borrowed (from our fine public library, before it burnt down) the recording of Jascha Heifitz playing the Tchaikovsky violin concerto. I wanted to savor his incredible skill and precision in the cadenza. At the slow speed, I could hear exactly how he shifted between notes while playing two notes at once. I did the same for other violinists, smug in my discovery that Heifitz's technique exceeded all the others.

Originally, classical symphonies were released on 78s in an obvious order. The first 78 might have the first movement on its two sides. Then the second movement would be on both sides of the next 78. If it fit. But people did not like to change platters every three minutes, and so changing turntables were invented. You loaded a stack of 78s, and as each one finished, the tone arm slid out of the way, and the changer dropped the next platter, without shattering it (usually). Changers required a change in the manufacture of 78s. Now, the first movement appeared on one side each of the first two platters, etc.

78s were the bane of classical music stations, because unless they were always alert, they played symphonic movements out of order. We all enjoyed catching them at it. Also, attempts were made to build robotic devices that could turn 78s over, automatically. My father remembered watching one of these devices in a store window, systematically picking up each 78 and hurling it at the window. I had two truly traumatic experiences with 78s, that I'll tell you about tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

My Socks:

I discovered a fascinating puzzle when I was young: A man is getting dressed in the dark. A clothes drawer holds twenty of his socks scattered all about: ten green and ten red. How many socks must he grab, so that when he gets to a place with some light, he can find a matched pair and put those on?

I was too young to object to a man who would wear red or green socks. I probably remember this puzzle because I got it wrong: “eleven,” I thought. If you said “three”, try this puzzle on other people, and be amazed at how often they get it wrong. But what's important about this puzzle, for me, is the lasting influence it has had on my life. I often get dressed in the dark. I have a drawer that frequently holds more than forty socks. I just grab any two of them and put them on. They're all black.