Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Tomato Update:

I was expecting another great home-tomato harvest this year, maybe 900 cherry tomatoes and more than fifty early girls. But my totals-to-date suck. When it got hot, squirrels discovered my tomatoes and carried them off, even though we tried to make them taste disgusting to squirrels. But now...

It’s NUT season. The squirrels have better things to interest them. My tomatoes, instead of disappearing, are turning red again. I hope to get 150 cherry tomatoes and almost twenty early girls this year.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Pure France:

President Sarkozy has apparently launched a crusade to deport every Roma from france. (I suspect that my failure to capitalize ‘france’ in the previous sentence was intentional.) After the Roma are gone, what Ethnic Cleansing will this country turn to next?

Friday, August 27, 2010

Better Border Crossing:

I’m back, with a better idea for crossing the border between the USA and Canada. We just spent a few days with friends in Montreal. We drove up the Northway and waited for an hour on long lines of cars, so that a customs official could interview us for two minutes and send us on our way. There has to be a better way, a way that would improve the crossing experience and bring additional revenue to both countries. And there is. I’m here to tell you about it.

Border crossings should be modeled on the way that the Six Flags Park in NJ gives people access to rides. When I arrived at Customs and saw all those cars waiting to cross, I should have been able to switch over to the “jumper” line. Cars in the jumper line are taken first – a great savings in time – but not everyone would get on the jumper line, because you would have to pay, say $35 for the privilege.

I think a lot of people would be willing to pay this fee to save forty minutes, especially when, like us, they are tired and eager to get where they are going. That’s why there would be another line, a very short one, for “jumper” jumpers. You would have to pay another $35 to get on this really short line that goes absolutely first. At eight P.M. on a rainy Sunday night, it would be worth it.

Friday, August 20, 2010

CFL bulbs are a gamble, but...

Some CFl bulbs are great. Some are much dimmer than you have any right to expect. Some die much sooner than they ought to.

When a CFL bulb dies, check to see if there's a phone number on the bulb. If there is, call it. You will answer a few questions, and they may send you a new bulb. You do not have to remember how long you've used it, nor do you need a sales receipt. Just make that phone call to get a free replacement under warranty.

I may take a few days off from blogging. Hey, it's August, right?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Nation of Fat People, reassured:

I'm not sure how we got here, but an awful lot of Americans (including myself) are distinctly overweight. There seem to be many causes of our overconsumption of food, and many subtle incentives that encourage us to stay that way. I think I have uncovered yet another societal "device" that makes us comfortable with overweight, and I'm not happy about it. I refer to Wide Screen TV sets.

It's great to have a TV that can display an extremely clear high resolution movie. The wide screen lets you see the whole picture (I hope your DVD really has the whole picture); at last, the true movie experience comes home.

But what happens when those fancy TVs display a good old-fashioned NTSC signal?

A standard TV image is a little wider than it is tall. Modern TVs should "letterbox" these images, with a black swath on each side. But generally, they're not shown that way. Instead, the TV (or maybe even the broadcasting station, I don't know) str-e--e-tch-es the image to fit the high-def screen. I see this a lot in TVs at motels and in public places. All the people on the screen look extra fat, fat-faced, chubby, portly, plump. Even the athletes look fat.

Surrounded by all these fat and famous people, why shouldn't I keep the extra weight on? I look like all those desireable people.

Monday, August 09, 2010

How should a device warn you that its batteries are getting low?

In 1969 I worked at a company that developed both hardware and software, and for the first time, I met [i]hardware people[/i]. I remember one of their fancies: to imagine a machine that would warn you it was not plugged in, by lighting an emergency light.

How should a device warn you when its batteries are low? Our wireless doorbell uses as bizarre a strategy as I can imagine. A few months ago, the doorbell rang. Our device uses the "Big Ben" tones, which take a few seconds to play. There's no mistaking them. I rushed to the front door, but nobody was there. A day or two later, the same thing happened. When it happened five times in one day -- gee, all those false alarms -- I figured it was time to throw the darn thing away, but first, I might as well try changing the batteries. And that solved the problem.

Why am I writing about this now? There was nobody at the front door this morning...

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Automobile Software:

Years ago, when I heard that carmakers were going to build cars that were mechanically simpler and controlled by software, I was genuinely frightened. Bugs, I thought. There are always bugs. I didn't even worry then, what mostly bothers me now: do these companies understand how to thoroughly test software?

Toyota's recent experiences with sudden acceleration suggest that the company's software developers are not experienced enough to know one of the most basic lessons about software. Or, much more likely, they do understand, and their request for what's necessary fell on the deaf ears of their bean-counters.

In a company that is going to bet the lives of its customers on its software, even the bean-counters have to understand this lesson. I will illustrate it from an experience in my long, checkered career.

In 1978 and 1979, I developed an unusual sort of disk subsystem for an office work station. We used an optical disk, where you can only write once to a given location, but you can read many times. Despite the unusual chaarcteristics of an optical disk, my software made it appear to be an ordinary disk drive, in which files could be rewritten and modified.

A dozen developers depended on my disk subsystem, and during my early releases, they often came to me, angry about a failure in my software. "I wrote a file and it's gone!" they said.

To their complaints, I always said the same thing: "Let's look at the log." My software logged every request the developers made of my disk system, and I logged how I responded to each request. I might say, "Look, you never opened the file." Or I might say, "You opened the file, but you never wrote any data to it." Or I might say, "Oops, I've got a bug."

The point is this: When you ask other people to use your system, you must protect yourself against incorrect claims of failure, and you must track how your system is working, to help find bugs.

In the case of cars, there should have been loggers recording data, even ten or twenty years ago, to record what the driver does, how the car responds, and what the observable conditions are, for MINUTES leading up to each crash. That data would make it easy for Toyota to say to us drivers: Sorry, you never pressed the brake pedal.

Why aren't these detailed loggers on every car that uses software? My guess is, it's too expensive to add the necessary memory and sensory equipment. But is it more expensive than what Toyota has gone through? Good loggers would enable them to say what percentage of sudden acceleration claims are driver-faults, and to better diagnose the cases that are their fault. Instead of letting the world wonder whether they are blowing smoke about sticking pedals, they could publish logs to independent reviewers to demonstrate the truth of their claims. I'd say they are foolish beyond belief, not to have the necessary log data.

By the way, I know there are loggers in modern cars. And I know that it was possible to use that data to show that, in many cases, an accelerating Toyata was the driver's error. It's just painfully evident that these loggers are inadequate, or we would sure as heck have heard about the data they recorded.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

The Columbia Broadchasing System:

I spent three glorious teen summers at Buck's Rock Work Camp in Connecticut. In my second year, the camp had, for the first time, a radio/engineering club. The radio counselor was asked to do the announcing when we were actually on the radio. I had better explain.

Each of the three years I was there, the orchestra took a LONG bus trip to a Connecticut radio station. We set up our stuff and, following the country western show by the same local “star” who sang and played Hawaiian guitar, our absolutely terrible orchestra played on the air for half an hour. I have no idea how such arrangements were made in the 1950's, but obviously Buck's Rock got some nice on-the-air advertising out of it, and maybe even some dollars.

The station was a CBS affiliate, and Jerry (the radio counselor) started joking weeks in advance that he would sign off like this: “This Buck's Rock Concert was brought to you by WCON [I don't remember the actual call letters], an affiliate of CBS, the Columbia Broad-Chasing System.” This was a good running joke at camp, but many of us wondered how Jerry was going to get out of this “groove” when he had to do the real signoff. Well, the show was recorded (the camp made more money by selling the records to parents), so I had many chances to hear what happened to Jerry. It went like this:
“This Buck's Rock Concert was brought to you by WCON, an affiliate of CBS, the Columbia Broad [dead air, slightly under one second] -Casting System.”

Sunday, August 01, 2010

I'm annoyed at Nuance.com (Dragon Naturally Speaking 11):

Nuance's new version of Dragon Naturally Speaking ("NatSpeak") is out. I want to upgrade to it, if it will support the ability to edit by voice in Open Office Writer, version 3. How do I find out if it does?

Well perhaps I'll have to buy it to find out. The company is woefully unprepared to help me. I started by going to their support page, which referred me to one of those "knowledge base" pages. It's nearly impossible for a knowledge base, built up on people's current questions and problems, to tell me what a new version can do.

I looked for specifications for version 11. There is a spec page, and it is too vague.

I found a way to call their support line and talk to an actual human. She assured me that NatSpeak 11 has dropped support for both MS Word 97 and Open Office 3.

So that's it, I said, I won't buy it.

But David Pogue reviewed the product in the New York Times. He flatly says it supports Open Office 3. Now maybe he made a mistake, but he did whet my appetite. I went back to the Nuance website. I found a product matrix that tells me exactly which features are in each of the version of the product (home, professional, etc.). That matrix has NO VERSION NUMBER attached to it. I can't tell whether it refers to version 10 or 11.

I kept looking at the Nuance web site. I found a form where I can submit a question to sales support. Just the thing! I filled in 11 fields of personal information and typed my question. When I clicked "Submit," the form took me to this webpage: http://now.eloqua.com/f.asp, which (as of 7/30/10) was broken, down or unimplemented. (Actually, www.eloqua.com is okay, so the particular link I got is probably just incorrect. Nuance, if this is your fault and not Eloqua's, then I am really upset with you.)

I can't tell you what a downer it is to submit a question on a filled out form and go to a non-webpage. Nuance, can you hear me? I want to find out about NatSpeak 11. Your web pages are not helping me! Please try harder.