Saturday, April 30, 2011

Polluting the News and wasting everyone’s time:

I’m very interested in how the Wilpons will deal with their finances, and whether they will sell all or part of the New York Mets. I set up a Google News Alert on this story, and I’ve been getting notifications for months. I cannot believe how many people have rewritten this story for their own websites or newspapers. The same few facts show up over, and over, and over, and they show up all over. There’s speculation, too, usually the same old speculation, about the same scant facts. If news stories in general are treated like this, then “news” must be an industry that hires and supports far more people than the world needs, to write the same news over and over again.

Of course, that’s good news for those news-writing people.

And it’s a familiar story to me. I spent my career in software, well aware of exactly why there was so much demand for programmers: companies need them to write the same software, over and over, and over, all over. Programmers exaggerate this trend with their innate “Not Invented Here” feelings. Companies drive this trend by rushing to create “me too” products, just like their advanced competitors, to stay in business. Pick a recent app that you like; chances are that ten groups of programmers are being paid to emulate it and add a little something, to steal away some of the business.

Mankind is an awful thing to waste, and this is one way it’s done. Let’s not even talk, as the New York Times does this week, about how research scientists spend more than 40% of their time trying to raise research money, and how the people who give away the grants prefer to play it safe rather than fund something that might be a spectacular advance. I'll get back into a good mood as soon as I can.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Musical Expression, and the lack thereof:

This week’s Science section in the New York Times had an interesting article about expression in music, featuring research by Daniel Levitin. The article reminded me of a fascinating experience I had in graduate school, in the 1960’s.

The music department was paying undergraduates to keypunch all of the masses of Josquin des Prez, who,whenever his music is not performed in a sappy way, is easily recognizable as the Beethoven of the sixteenth century.

We had devised a scheme for coding his (mostly four part, polyphonic) music, and we faced the giant challenge of proofreading it. Proofing the codes was really horrible, and I came up with an alternative: we could feed the codes into a newly-installed mainframe program that generated music from (differently encoded) input. I managed to make tapes from the Josquin codes that sounded like an organ playing the music. We listened to this output, and it was easy to find the coding mistakes that made wrong notes.

These tapes sounded beautiful, even though the computer was unable to add any “expression” to the music, and there were no instructions in our codes to suggest any musical expression. I’m pretty sure I know why this musical output was so striking.

Modern singers, no matter how hard they try to adapt their style to ancient music, tend to accent the first beat of every measure. That’s how music has always worked for a long time, and it is deeply ingrained in our nature. The computer music was not making these accents.

We can be pretty sure from sixteenth century accounts, that singers of the time made no such downbeat accents. Instead, they accented each long note that was preceded by a short note. Our computer added no such accents, but still, it more nearly approached the type of performance that Josquin intended by eliminating the anachronistic downbeat accents. As a result, our computer approached closer to the heart of the music than most modern performances.

As for the expression we experienced listening to our tapes: the mind is a mysterious thing, both ours, and Josquin’s.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The last Typewriter Manufacturer is Gone:

Via Slashdot, I've learned from this Atlantic article that the last typewriter manufacturer, Godrej and Boyce (in Mumbai) has shut its doors. (Business got slow there after 2000).

There are many writers who feel that the pace of typing stirs their creative juices. I've been editing and correcting on computers all my adult life, so I'm not one of them.

I do have happy memories of my father's Underwood, on which he drafted many a fine brief. Quite a few of its keys had a beautiful brownish-orange cast, the result of my obtaining tincture of iodine from the bathroom when I was three, and spilling it into the machine, which stoutly survived. Pressing the Underwood's keys was interesting. They didn't all move the same, and some traveled much farther than others, to reach the page.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Blue Banana Story:

The Blue Banana is not my story, but it deserves to be better known. I shall tell it as I got it from Jeremy Pollack, who told it to me when I asked him why he had a blue-hued banana in his office. (Actually, it was THE blue banana, as you shall see.) The same story is told (differently) here, but I prefer to believe that Jeremy got it right.

SRI, across Route 1 near Princeton, which is also Sarnoff, used to be the development lab of RCA. It is the place where color TV was born. There was a time when there was exactly one color TV transmitter, and fewer than a dozen sets outside the labs that could receive the color signal. These sets were of course in the homes of specially-entitled RCA employees, who got to show off a little color TV to their friends. Not much, mind you! The one color camera might just be pointed at a fixed scene, and if you were one of the lucky ones, you could view that tableau on your color TV.

George Brown was working late one night when he got a call from an RCA executive. Could he please point the camera at something interesting? The exec wanted to show off the new color technology to his guests.

Well, you can imagine how Brown felt. The only reason he was at work was to handle some desperate, date-driven crisis. He politely told the exec he would get right on it. He collected a bowl of fruit from a handy fridge, aranged it in a bowl, and worked in a banana that he painted blue. He pointed the camera at the bowl, called the exec back, and told him everything was all set. Then Brown went back to dealing with his crisis.

The panic call came about fifteen minutes later. The exec had tried everything, but he couldn't get natural colors on all the fruits at once. Something horrible was wrong. Could Brown please check?
Brown waited a few seconds before resuming the call. "I looked," he said. "The colors on my TV set here are the same as the colors in the fruit bowl. It's okay."

There were a few more disruptive panic calls, but Brown didn't mind. He savored his revenge. Everyone at the labs got to hear this story, and it created a historical precedent of sorts. Whenever the labs issued a new advance in handling color, including standards for color compression, their sample illustrations always included a bowl of fruit with a blue banana. You can look it up.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Incredibly Shrinking Cubicles:

In the mid 1980's, Intel had a development facility in Plainsboro, NJ. We filled a two-story office building, a sea of cubicles, for about 150 people.

Development on a major new chip had begun, and the VP for hardware asked our wonderful, friendly, competent building manager to prepare for forty designers to relocate to our building from the coast, in three months.
"Where are we going to put them?" she asked. The building's full!"

"Think of something," he said.

And she did.

If all the cubes on the first floor were made a little smaller, she could free up the required space. Logistics would be complex, because the freed space had to appear in one place, and people had to be minimally unsettled by all the changes. She planned a sequence of events. Movers worked day after day, making their minimal changes, and some open floor began to apear.
One day she looked at the calendar, and she was deeply puzzled. She rushed off to the hardware veep and asked him, "Larry, where are those forty engineers that I've been making space for? Aren't some of them supposed to be here by now?
"Oh, did I forget to tell you?" he said. "Two months ago, they decided not to come."
Our cubicles never regained their lost space.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Ring...

For about thirty years, I have been unable to remove my wedding ring. (I weighed less when I got married.) The ring was never a problem, more of a constant companion. Until recently, when the skin beneath it got quite irritated. I decided that I had to take my ring-finger problem to a dermatologist or a jeweler; I wasn't sure which.

Now my dermatologist's office is in the same building as my physical therapist. So after therapy today, I went up one floor to consult the dermatologist's receptionist.

"I'll tell you what they told me to do when I was pregnant," she said. "Spray Windex all over your finger and it'll come off."

I did, and it did. I was quite amazed, especially since the knuckle joint seemed so large; but you never know.

iPad Apps: Searching, Searching....

I have received my birthday iPad2, and the fun has begun. I’ve been avidly searching the web to find apps that I’ll want to try. I’m fascinated that it has taken some thought to find the variety, and categories of apps, that I want. I started with:

iPad apps reviews

But soon a bit of imagination kicked in:

iPad apps reviews best

iPad apps reviews games

iPad apps reviews expensive (A few cost $hundreds!)

iPad apps reviews valuable

iPad apps reviews organizers

iPad "app of the day"

iPad apps reviews timewasters ...

With my iPad finally here, I doubt I'll have any time to look for any more apps.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Look out at the Sports Cars...

Three times in my life, I’ve been fascinated by all the sports cars parked outside. I’m going to assemble these memories for you.

The most recent time: There were undesirable changes at the garage that had been fixing our car, so we tried a different guy. We had a recommendation, but he was a character, and his garage was a strange, old-fashioned jumble. But outside his garage was an assortment of sports cars, very expensive vehicles, and he was working on some of them. If they trusted him, I could, and I relaxed.

The first time: I was no longer a grad student at the university. My wife was, and we wished to continue living in the official (and inexpensive) grad student housing. A dean was kicking us out. His reason? The “head of the household” was not a student. He told us that since I was not a student, I was in a position to earn money, and had no need for the housing.

“Is this a means test?” I asked. “Do you query grad students about their means?”

He conceded he didn’t.

I told him that about a quarter of the people living in grad student housing had sports cars! I had definitely scored a point, but it was not the decision-maker that enabled us to stay.

The other time: I was working at an Exxon-enabled startup. We had swelled to a hundred employees and moved into a brand new, four-story business building. I was looking down at the parking lot with our CEO, as he sadly shook his head.

“Too many sports cars out there,” he said. “The salaries we’re paying are way too high.”

Friday, April 15, 2011

Searching is not Problem-Solving:
Jakob Neilsen is a deep researcher into Web Useability issues (and other user interface issues as well). His April essay, Incompetent Research Skills Curb Users' Problem Solving, is a wakeup call about how mindlessly we use search engines when we need to discover something. I can see myself in some of the inefficient search patterns he describes, and he gives me excellent suggestions about how to improve.

I learned a new Acronym from this article: SERP (the first search engine results page). Neilsen explains, indirectly, why 'SERP' deserves to be an an acronym: It's much more important than it ought to be.

Recognizing that most people will not use Search engines better, Neilsen even has recommendations for making websites more attuned to normal search behaviors. I think his thoughtful article can make us better Googlers. Give it a try.

Happy Birthday, Samantha!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Peanuts (Pogo):

Our local newspaper runs the “Classic Peanuts” comic strip, cartoons that Charles Schultz penned during his lifetime. Occasionally I read the Peanuts, and sometimes I laugh; but I try as hard as I can to avoid the strip altogether.

Charles Schultz and I have a long, uneasy history. In my teens, in the 1950’s, there was one hip, delicious, aware, political and genuinely arty comic strip: Walt Kelly’s Pogo. I loved it, and I still have all my Pogo books. My friends loved it, too, and we used to discuss the random, crazy, finer points of Pogo. But then, in the mid fifties, I discovered that my friends were abandoning Pogo for some other comic strip, a poorly drawn one (in comparison): Peanuts.

I looked Peanuts over and found it terribly wanting. But to stay au courant with my friends, I had to follow it.

I parted company with Schultz when he was still alive, after reading what he believed was the essence of cartooning. He said, “The job of a cartoonist is to say the same thing, over and over, without anybody noticing.” That’s when I tried to go off Peanuts altogether.

It’s a pity that there is no “Classic Pogo”. Although the comic strip is long dead (Kelly died in 1973), its observations about politics, art and human nature are as vibrant and in-your-face as ever. Walt Kelly was a weird, random, and thoughtful kind of guy. The people who worked at his newspaper got used to him, as illustrated by this brief anecdote: Kelly called the office. The receptionist who picked up the phone recognized his voice. She said, “Hello, Mr. Kelly. Is it about anything?”

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Playlist for April 12, 2011 at 6 a.m., Music on WPRB princeton, 103.3 fm and WPRB.COM (streaming around the world):

Playlist for April 12, 2011 at 6 a.m., Music on WPRB princeton, 103.3 fm and WPRB.COM (streaming around the world):
This is the playlist for my radio program of April 12, 6 to 8:30 a.m. EDT.
My first such Classical Playlist (with an explanation) is here.

The actual list will get filled in as I broadcast, 6 to 8:30 a.m. EDT.
Playlist for Tobias on WPRB, 103.3 FM and WPRB.COM, for April 12
Composer TitleEnsembleConductorSoloistsAlbum IDStarting time
Mahler, Gustav Symphony #9Royal Liverpool Philharmonic OrchestraLibor Pesekn/avirgin vcds 7912196:03
Mozart, Wolfgang AmadeusSinfonia Concertante in E-flat, K.364Perpignan Festival orchestraPablo CasalsIsaac Stern (vln), William Primrose (vla)sony smk 58 9837:28
Mittler, FranzTrio in G, opus 3 (1911)Con Brion/aAnton Miller (vln), Lawrence Zoernig (vc), Diana Mittler-Battipaglia (pno)Private Con Brio release8:04

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Really, Really, Really, Really bad GUI:

My wife and I were trying to make an order at a well-used website. We were using current Mozilla Firefox3. She had selected a number of items to buy. All that was left to do was this: Select the month and year that our card would expire.

I clicked on the month. Nothing happened. I tried again. Nothing. There was a tiny arrow to the right of the month, the indicator of a drop-down list. I clicked that. Nothing.

At this point, it would have been reasonable give up, even after selecting so many things to buy. I was desperate. I Right-clicked on the month. I Right-clicked on that tiny little drop-down arrow.


Something happened when I Right-clicked on the drop-down arrow. A few pixels shifted to suggest that I had selected it. Great, I thought. I pressed the down arrow on the keyboard, and the month changed to Feb. I down-arrowed to the correct month. I right-clicked on the tiny arrow for the year drop-down, and down-arrowed to the correct year. And then I placed our order.

If I hadn't figured out how to set the credit card's expiry, would I be entitled to kill someone? Almost entitled, perhaps?

Bad, Bad, GUI.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Bruce Schneier on our propensity for detecting cheating:

Bruce Schneier has a wonderful piece in his security blog. In it, he first describes some basic mathematical logic. Then he describes a psychological experiment developed in the 1960's, that reassures you (after you have stumbled through schneier's tutorial). The experiment demonstrates that the great majority of people (even if they have taken the logic class) have difficulty doing this type of logical reasoning.

Except when the logic is framed in terms of cheating. For some reason, the threat of cheating turns our logical brains on, and the majority of people do the exact same kind of mathematical logic effortlessly. In my opinion, the long paragraphs Schneier chose to write are intimidating, but please hang in there. It's a good read.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Hu's on first again:

Chin-lung Hu stroked a pinch hit tonight. He was looking for his first hit as a Met. He battled hard, nine pitches, to get his single. During the at-bat, one pitch came in rather high. The Mets announcer, Gary Cohen said, "The pitch is too high to Hu." After a pause, he said, "I feel like Doctor Seuss."


Over the many years we’ve lived in Princeton, the spring, summer and fall seasons have been accompanied by the songs of the mockingbird. The northern mockingbird doesn’t imitate much, but it delights you with its seemingly inexhaustible repertoire. It sings a phrase or a sound three or more times. Then another phrase. Then another, and another, on and on in great variety.

2010 was the year of zero mockingbirds. I saw them nowhere. I heard them nowhere. I have no idea why.

Today, after my radio program, I listened to a particularly fine mockingbird on the university campus. It sang most phrases a whopping six times. When I tried to whistle its warning call, it lifted off its high tree and fluttered its wings at me. It showed me its raised tail (a striking characteristic of its profile) and sang on and on. Welcome back, mockingbird.

Playlist for April 5, 2011, 2011 at 6 a.m., Music on WPRB princeton, 103.3 fm and WPRB.COM (streaming around the world):

My first such Classical Playlist (with an explanation) is here.

The actual list will get filled in as I broadcast
Playlist for Tobias on WPRB, 103.3 FM and WPRB.COM, for April 5, 2011
Composer TitleOrchestraConductorSoloistsAlbum IDStarting time
Lloyd, GeorgeSymphony #1 in A majorAlbany Symphony Orchestra, George Lloyd (cond)George Lloyd (the composer!)n/aTROY 032-26:03
Falckenhagen, AdamSonata IV, Opus 1 (1740)n/an/aJon Mendle (archguitar)In a circle records ICR0046:29
Mittler, FranzChaconne for Solo Violin, Opus 10 (1926)n/an/aAnton Miller (vln)Con Brio6:42
Wildhaber, MariaBulgarian Folk Love Song: Yana (Dimitar Petkov)n/an/a Maria Jeleztcheva Wildhaber (bn), Tania Tachkova (pno)MSR 13636:55
Sibelius, JeanConcerto in d minor for Violin, Op.47City of Birmingham Symphony OrchestraSimon RattleNigel Kennedy (vln)EMI 754 55927:00
Saint-Saëns, CamilleClarinet Sonata in E flat, Op. 167n/an/aSabine Meyer (cl), Oleg Maisenberg (pno)EMI 797877:37
Mozart, Wolfgang AmadeusAdagio for 2 clarinets and 3 basset horns in B flat, K. 411London Wind SoloistsJack Brymern/aLP: London CS 63507:55
Schubert, Franz Lieder: Ständchen, D. 889 (Schegel after Shakespeare), Der Musensohn, D. 764 (Goethe), Suleika I, D. 720 (Willemer)n/an/aArleen Auger (Sopr), Lambert Orkis (forte pno)Virgin classics 6285988:00
Kirchner, LeonFlutingsn/an/aPaula Robison (fl), Ayano Kataoka (perc)pergola PR 10388:18
Honegger, ArturPacific 231Oslo Philharmonic OrchestraJansons (cond)n/aEMI 551228:22:00

Monday, April 04, 2011

My father was a lousy clarinettist, I'm afraid:

My father was a lousy clarinettist, but it took many years for me to realize that. My father was also a decent pianist and an fine amateur singer. He hardly ever played clarinet although he owned, one, occasionally picking up my own axe to play a few licks that were error-prone and badly out of tune. I always assumed he sounded bad because he was out of practice.
Many, many years passed, and for almost five years, I did not touch my clarinet at all. One day I started practicing again. A lot of my technique was playing hookey, and the effort to hold my embouchure was painful, but my sound was good, and I could still hit a lot of notes right. That's when it struck me: my father sounded poor when he rarely played clarinet because that's how he had always sounded.
My dad claimed an interesting record about clarinet-playing that blinded my eyes to the reality. He played clarinet in the Columbia College band longer than anyone else. He played third clarinet for three years as an undergrad, three years as a Law School student, and three more years after that, when he still happened to be nearby.
I've often remembered dad's story and thought, 'nine years.' But perhaps I should think, 'nine years in the third clarinet section.' I do know that he greatly enjoyed it.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Hu’s playing shortstop:

Did Abbot and Costello curse? Their “Who’s on First” routine ends (in various recordings) with Costello saying something like, “And I don’t give a darn!” To which Abbott responds, “Oh, he’s our shortstop.”

I have long wondered whether, in night clubs, Costello actually said “And I don’t give a $*&#!”, which would have turned Abbott’s rejoinder into a far funnier finish. Searching the Web, I found no suggestion that A & C ever finished their routine that way, but I did find a wonderful parody of the routine, about buying a computer. It gets better as it goes along. And best of all, it was written by ‘me’ (otherwise known as Wackyonesf).

It would be perfect if the Mets could trade for a utility infielder named Watt. Now, on to (relevant) baseball:

On March 31st, Jason Isringhausen was trying to complete a good inning of relief, to keep the score tied. There were two out, a runner on third, and the opposing pitcher was at bat. Dale Murphy was playing third, and Hu was at shortstop.

Murphy’s problem, which the announcers explained after the play, was that he was “guarding the line,” that is, playing very close to third. Typically a third baseman will do this when the greatest danger the batter offers is a hard drive just inside the foul line, for a double. Had the runner been on first instead of third, and had a power hitter been up, that would be good tactics. But any single by the batter would bring the runner in, and a pitcher was unlikely to pull Isringhausen’s pitches down the line.

In fact, the batter hit a bouncer into the hole between 3rd and short, an easy play for Murphy, had he been in position. Both players ran for the ball. It bounced off Murphy’s glove, pitcher was safe, and the run scored. And of course, the announcer said, “If Murphy had stayed out of the way, Hu would have gotten it.” Oh, who’s going to be fun, this season? Isn’t he?