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

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.