Thursday, December 31, 2009

Charge It:

As the world's technology changes, it's fun to make jokes about what people used to take for granted, that we no longer remember. I loved that scene in a Superman movie where Clark Kent needs a phone booth to change in, but all he can find is an open public phone on its stand in the sidewalk; no booth. Jules Feiffer drew a great cartoon almost fifty years ago about his schlub character, Bernard Mergendeiler, wanting to rent a phone booth to live in so that his friends would know he was available. Booths? Public phones? Every old hotel has a wall full of peculiar-looking bays near the bathrooms, where the pay phones used to be.

There's something else you may not remember – or know of – from the old telephone days. Let me tell you a story:

In the early 1960's my wife and I lived in what had been intended as temporary housing for returning WW II veterans: ridiculously flimsy little Graduate Student homes at Princeton University. In late 1965, I think, we got new neighbors, Bob and Vicky. They were not just 1960's people. They were offbeat 1960's people. She was slim and very pretty. He was tall with a big shock of hair and a rough-and-ready, capable-guy persona.

The first thing they did was to paint the gypsum-board walls of their apartment, a flat light color. The last bit of painting, which I'm sure fascinated all their visitors who saw the result, was different. Vicky stood naked against the living room wall, arms and legs spread, and Bob painted an explicit silhouette of her entire body. The silhouette wasn't very close to the front door, leaving room for the full-size blacksmith's anvil that moved in with their spare, artsy possessions.

We shared a single building with them, separated by a thin wall. We heard everything that went on in each other's apartments, and I mean everything, which means that one night, when Bob yelled at a peeping Tom, he woke us up.

That winter, Bob and Vicky went on vacation around December 14. Thank God they left a window open so that their cat could get in and out.

About a week later, their phone began to ring. They rarely got phone calls, so these calls were noteworthy. They came about every three hours, and the caller tried about twenty rings before giving up, every time. The calls came morning, afternoon and middlenight. And they were LOUD. In those days, we all had clunky, massive AT&T phones that typically kept working for eighty years. They had real bells in them, not electronic imitations of bells. Those night calls woke us up.

After a few nights, I'd had it. The phone rang, yet again. I threw on coat and slippers, ran outside, crawled through their window in the dark, and answered their phone.

I found myself talking to an AT&T operator. She informed me that I -- Bob, that is -- had made an “Other Number Call" on a certain date. The call would cost $1.75. Would I accept the charge? I said that I did. There were no more annoying calls. AT&T operators had been calling for DAYS to get this charge cleared up. Now let me explain.

In the old days, if you were away from home, you could make a call and charge it to your home phone number. (That's the “Land Line number” for you young persons.) You gave your name and number – some people used to lie about this – and then AT&T enabled you to make the call. But AT&T did not trust you 100 percent. They would subsequently call you at home and get you to agree to be billed for the “Other number” call. When you were home.

Bob and Vicky returned in early January. I had bought us quite a bit of peaceful silence by then.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

My GPS Hits a Home Run:

A GPS is a wonderful device if you know what you're doing. And if you have plenty of time. My Garman 1300T Nuvi did a brilliant bit of navigating for me today. However, every plus for my GPS seemed to come with a minus. Here's the score:

  1. MINUS! My story begins a week ago, when the GPS began to hang every time I tried to use its database of places. Otherwise, it worked fine.
  2. MINUS! I deleted all my “favorite places” to see if that would fix the problem. It didn't, and I will have to re-enter them.
  3. MINUS! I was on hold yesterday for two hours and twenty minutes, trying to reach Garmin. The automated message had warned me the hold would be over 30 minutes. I eventually gave up.
  4. PLUS?? I called Garmin again this morning, the moment they opened for customer service. The automated message warned me that the hold would be over 30 minutes. Yet I was immediately connected to an operator. Garmin may know where we are in space, but it seemed clueless about the fourth dimension.
  5. MINUS? The operator said she could transfer me to technical support, where the wait time was only two minutes. She transferred me, and I was on hold for twenty-six minutes.
  6. PLUS!! The guy at technical service quickly fixed my GPS by reinstalling the system software.
  7. I went to the post office south of Princeton. From there, I wished to go to the new Trader Joe's in our area. I was convinced there was a brilliant, short route from the P.O. to TJs, but I did not know how to find it. I asked the GPS to find Trader Joes. That store is not in its data base. I understand, the store is pretty new. There is a Lowe's at the same shopping center, so I asked the GPS to go there instead.
  8. PLUS! (with two minuses): There was a brilliant route, and the GPS found it; it took me right to the entrance of the shopping center, even though (MINUS) the entrance road to the center was not on its map, and (MINUS) it really wanted me to cross US Route 1 to get to Lowe's (incorrectly placed on the other side of the big highway).

There's no point adding up those pluses and minuses. I'm so glad to know about that clever route.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Sweat it out!

I'm a steam-room kind of guy. The only use I have for a Sauna is this: it's a nice warm place to dry off after a shower. So I entered the Sauna at the fitness club and found three highschool seniors (I think) huddled up on the benches. They were wearing sweatpants and hoodies, very irregular for our Sauna. (The rules say you're supposed to wear a towel or a swimsuit. But I wasn't going to complain, because I wear neither while drying off.)

I stared at them politely, trying to figure out why they were there. After awhile, Guy A said, “Losing weight sucks.”
I asked, “Are you trying to make a weight limit?”
“Wrestling,” he said.
Guy B said “We all got out of condition over the holiday.” (I guess 'out of condition' is a euphemism for too much food.)
Guy C said, “My plan is: I leave here and go to Bagel Barn.”
Guy A looked mournful and said: “Ain't gonna happen.”

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Book Report: The Montreal Olympics by Paul C. Howell

This is not a sports book. It explains how the 1976 Montreal Olympics were planned, financed and prepared. Its author is a long-time friend of mine, the planning director, who was there from start to finish. I intend to review this book properly after I finish it; but I'm already excited enough to talk about it, and I'm in chapter five. If you have no experience of managing a development project, then this book is your opportunity to gaze deep into the challenges, risks and responsibilities that managers face when they try to do something that has not been done before. If you have ever managed a development project involving a dozen people or more, then this book will read like a thriller for you, as you empathize with the key committees and the great dangers they face on an unforgiving, fixed schedule.

Imagine the Olympic planners sitting in their offices in 1972. They have come to realize that they must find and hire hundreds of skilled executives, each of whom will be responsible for making one aspect of the Olympics come together. They must find the money to hire all these people. And as they realize this, they sit in their offices in their coats, for they lack even the funds to turn on the heat in their building. How fast can they make it all happen? How many good guesses will they have to make?

This is not a rah-rah-we-did-it book. Howell analyzes decisions made and not made, difficult guesses about future needs, counter-currents among personnel, political infighting and string-pulling. It's all there for you to follow, with that dread fixed deadline hanging over the chase to succeed.

You can buy it here, if you like.

The names aren't always strange:

You know, the players on the football team, they have some pretty strage names. And I'm not leading into the Abbot and Costello routine. Because not all pro football players have strange names. Take, for example, this conversation I heard during a TV game last week:
Announcer A: You know, that receiver's really good. He reminds of Steve Smith.
Announcer B: Yeah!
Announcer B, a moment later: Uhh, which Steve Smith?

Friday, December 25, 2009

Ten Commandments Plus:

Cecil B. DeMille directed >The Ten Commandments in 1923, and he directed the remake in 1956. Yet another Ten Commandments movie showed up in 2007, this one about Moses. I'm really glad that none of these movies seems to require a sequel, because, these days, you know what they would call it? Yup: The Eleven Commandments.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Even Better TV:

A recent legal decision – in a case so revolting that I won't even link to it – highlighted an important principle of our legal system: Imagine a jury hearing a criminal case that takes days to complete. Suppose that the defendant happens to be in jail without bail, and he appears in court each day in his prison garb. He looks like a prisoner to the jury. As days go by, they think of him as a criminal, and they convict him. But No! That defendant is entitled to be tried on the merits of his case, not on his looks. He's entitled to wear normal clothes and look innocent in the courtroom. Which brings us to my new idea for a Reality TV show: The Perp Walks!

Each week, the show interviews a defendant whose trial is about to start. You get a pretty good look at him, and you hear the case against him. On camera, he (or she) says whether he's guilty, but you don't get to see that part before the trial. (You think he might lie? That's not important. Read on...)

The makeover crew of 'Perp Walks' gives the defendant a real going over. They spruce him (or her) up and buy a really nice wardrobe. Then we get to find out whether the perp was convicted. Maybe we even get to see a bit of the trial, to see how he (or she) looks in court. On the TV show, the post-trial analysts decide whether the makeover was the crucial step to winning the case, if the perp wins.

Are you wondering how alleged perpetrators get picked for a makeover on the 'Perp Walks' show? They have to compete for it. Of course!

Sunday, December 20, 2009


On a nearby store with “Dollar” in its name, a sign said: All Items: $1.00 and up.
It wasn't even telling the truth. Most items in the store were $1.19 or $1.38, but you could buy candy for 69 cents.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Another Leak, the worst so far:

You're probably talking about this terrible security disaster already: the largest database leak ever. Arweena, a spokes-elf for Santa Claus, admitted a few hours ago that the database posted at WikiLeaks yesterday is indeed the comprehensive 2009 list of which kids have been naughty, and which were nice. The source of the leak is unclear. It may have come from a renegade reindeer, or it could be the work of a clever programmer in the Ukraine. Either way, it's a terrible black eye for Santa. Arweena promised that in the future, access to this database would be restricted on a “need to know” basis. And you know who that means!

The size of this database is astounding; it's not just for Christians. Abu Dhabi and India have registered official protests over the inclusion of their children in the comprehensive worldwide listings; And there have been howls of outrage everywhere about the inclusion of sixteen and seventeen year-olds. Santa's list is an inexcusable invasion of privacy for teenagers everywhere.

The myriad of inaccuracies (see Cory Doctorow's critique at Boing Boing) makes matters much worse. The majority of the children are accurately identified by their age, addresses, birthdates and (where possible) national identification numbers. All United States kids with Social Security numbers are now sharing their identities with the whole world. But in some cases, and for a few countries, the kids are identified by name alone. Aristotle Makektikutis, a thirteen year old Athenian, insists he is not the Aristotle Makektikutis in Santa's Greek records whose naughty deed is listed as “pollution.” His parents have issued a statement that their son does not even know how to pollute.

But it gets worse. In fact, this reporter thinks that any sober assessment of Santa's database can come to only one conclusion: it never should have been, and it should never be again. The mistakes! Jane Doe (actual name withheld), who is fully identified in the database and stands accused of “weak morals” is actually twenty-six, not eleven as shown in Santa's data record. Jane Doe has had to disappear into the FBI witness protection program to hide from the crowd of men seeking her company. Frequent age errors in the database mean that grown men and women who used their social security numbers as banking passwords are now losing their life savings. This outrage cannot go on.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Pity the poor Predators and their handlers:

Today's scandal concerns the revelation that our terrorist enemies have been intercepting the video that unmanned Predator airplanes transmit to our forces on the ground. It sounds like a terrible black eye for our military that this “hacking” has been going on. (By the way, this is not actually “hacking,” any more than watching TV in your home is “hacking”.) Our enemies need little more than a laptop and a very cheap program to record the video. And many, many hours of Predator surveillance have been discovered on enemy laptops.

I think there's a lot of nonsense in the way the media is reporting this story. I've had a lot of time to think about this encryption issue, because I have been working on another program that transmits video to the ground. (I do not have any government clearance; I have no special knowledge of the Predator program, and I am not about to give away any secrets. Let's just talk sense here.) There are costs to using encryption, even if encryption had been instituted on Predators from Day One. There are costs to having the Predator's video intercepted, and I suspect that these costs are being overhyped. I hope that our military analysts choose a sensible reaction to this monitoring problem, rather than a 'move-plot” reaction (by assuming the fantastically worst possible outcome).

First, let's consider the costs of operating an encrypted system. Today's powerful computers can probably encrypt and decrypt a video stream on the fly, so that there will be no delay in using the video on the ground. That may not have been the case when the current Predator design was approved. It's possible that encryption was not included from day one because adding this feature would have made the program much more difficult, delayed it, and made it less useful.

Today, as the media have discussed, the problem is that adding encryption to all the relevant government computers is a considerable cost, and a likely delay. During such an upgrade, some computers that need to run flawlessly may be temporarily incompatible with the encrypted feed; or they may assume that the feed is encrypted when in fact it is not. Such confusion hurts us, possibly more than the current open feed helps our enemies.

Let's assume that we do upgrade all Predators to use encryption. There will still be an ongoing cost, possibly a painful one. The Predator and its ground crew will have to share the password to be able to view the video. Obviously, all Predators cannot use the same wired-in password all the time, because when that password is leaked or guessed, everything would be in the open again. Sometimes the ground crews and the Predator will fail to share the same password. (This is a corollary of Murphy's law, trust me on this.) So using encryption means that some entire flights will be useless.

Finally, I would like to speculate about what our enemies are getting by viewing our Predator video. I am not impressed by the argument that it tells then where our troops are. There are other ways to know where a Predator is, and one good way would be to intercept its video stream even without being able to read the stream. I am sure that anyone with access to hundreds of hours of Predator video can figure out something useful about our military habits, by analyzing what we choose to make our Predators examine, and by analyzing what we choose to look at most closely. But it's possible that we could post all this Predator video on the web and be no worse off. (We would actually be better off, because hundreds of Americans would spend their own time examining the video, and reporting important phenomena that are hard to see, under stress in the field.)

Now let's remember the bottom line: there are costs to encrypting, and costs to not encrypting. Someone has to balance these costs and decide how to spend our military time and money most wisely. Let's not let embarrassment stampede us into action.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Under a dollar for coffee...

When I buy really excellent coffee beans, I'm horrified by the cost. Shipping (which is highway robbery of course) pushes the rates up to about $28 per pound. To assuage my conscience, I follow an expensive order with a cheap one, more like $7/pound. In my opinion, the $7/pound coffee I buy still makes a better drink than you can buy in Starbucks, for dollars per cup.

I had never tried to figure out how many cups of coffee I can get for that money, but I'm tracking my consumption this time. At first I was hoping that the cost for my expensive beans would be less than $1.50 per cup, but it appears that the cost per cup will be much better, about $0.85. That's pretty fantastic, considering that I believe I'm making better coffee than I can buy in nearby coffee houses, and much cheaper too.

But here's the thing: As I noticed that the likely cost per cup was coming down, I did not get very excited. Because no matter how many cups I get per pound of beans, it's obvious that the $7/pound coffee costs one fourth of that. In relative terms: compared to Starbucks, my expensive coffee is a bargain; compared to supermarket prices, it's a grand luxury.

Friday, December 11, 2009

AT&T, can you stand the heat?

AT&T has determined that its iPhone users are using too much bandwidth. In fact, just a few percent of iPhone users account for nearly half of the bandwidth that its iPhone customers require. AT&T proposes to 'educate' these users, or else to charge them more, to make them cut back. This sort of misguided thinking by our Internet providers threatens to push United States Networking back into the dark ages of computing.

In fact, iPhone's 'leading edge' users are requiring the sort of bandwidth that fifty percent of iPhone users will require in about three years. AT&T's job is to plan for those needs, not to scuttle them. The bottom line? AT&T, if you can't stand the heat, get out of the iPhone.

Monday, December 07, 2009

A Devastating Putdown:

I met a fellow today whom I haven't thought about for years. We were reintroduced, and I really put him down. He was not devastated, but I clearly got to him. At the time, I was fascinated that I had invented a nasty remark, and sorry that I had used it. He's a nice guy, and he didn't begin to deserve it.

I had walked into the lab to find a manager bringing a developer up to speed, a person I did not recognize. I started to introduce myself, but he said, “Toby, I remember you. We worked together ten years ago on the motion video project.” And he told me his name.

I remembered him at once. In fact, we had been acquaintances at best. We worked with the same people, but not quite on the same project, and our paths had indeed crossed quite often in 1999 and 2000. My response to him was, “I remember! You never answered my last email to you, in 2003.”

That was the putdown. And as best as I can recall, it's true. In 2003, I was looking for consulting work, and I had systematically emailed developers I knew of including, this Mr. X.

I wish I had saved my remark for someone who really deserved it. I can think of a lot of situations in which my remark would be even more devastating if I, and the other person, both knew it was false.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Too many ads:

There are too many ads in pro football. The ads slow an unnecessarily slow game into a painfully slow game. I record games on Tivo so that I can “speedwatch”, and I still find it annoying to skip over so many ads.

One situation in particular annoys me. I don't understand why fans accept it. A lot of people watch pro football on TV, and they should all be complaining. It works like this: When a team scores, there's an ad break. That's fine. Excellent time for a few ads. Then comes the kickoff, and right after it, there's another ad break. That means we get to watch ONE PLAY sandwiched between pods of ads.

The people who televise the games know that what they are doing is wrong. Late in the game, if the score is close, they'll skip that ad after the kickoff and leave the excitement in. Ads after the kickoff: what a dumb idea.