Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Sequel...

As the year comes to an end, movie makers everywhere are deciding how to capitalize on past successes by favoring us with even more sequels. Unfortunately, some of the greatest movies of all time seem to be immune to sequels. But I’ve given them some thought, and here are my dynamite picks for next year.
  1. Shawshank redemption, II: Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, unable to bear their great degree of freedom, plot to return to the only prison they could ever call home.
  2. The passion of the christ, II: This time, Jim Caviezel is beaten with much more modern S&M equipment.
  3. Twelve days of christmas: On the 13th day of ... (Note to you sticklers. I know you think this sequel should start on the 7th day, but that’s been done.)
  4. Broadway melody of 1938, II: A group of modern music stars go back in a time machine to wow a late 1930’s audience with their Hip Hop and Rap. Due to the lack of modern sound equipment, and the stars' inability to project their untrained singing voices, the show flops.
  5. Xanadu, II: Oops, sorry.
  6. It’s a wonderful life, II: George Bailey’s life isn’t working out very well. He asks Clarence for a few minor changes.
  7. Invasion of the body snatchers: After that mysterious menace takes over the minds of every single person on earth, an even greater menace comes down from the sky to wreak even greater havoc.
  8. Excursion to the moon (1908), II: A party returns to the moon to repair the man’s eye, take a great step for mankind, and play golf. (Perhaps this one has been made already.)
  9. The mouse that roared, II: Highly incestual inbreeding in the Duchy of Fenwick has produced a generation of terrifying monsters. J-Lo, a doctor with a degree in movie-monster-dealing, tries to stop them from conquering the United States. Again.
  10. The godfather, part II, II: Anything in this franchise should make millions. If it does, look out for The godfather, part II, II, II.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Another Universal Calender. Yawn...

Dick Henry writes here about a new proposal for a universal calendar. His idea avoids interpolating a special year-day, an issue that has plagued previous proposals. Religious groups that worship a holy day every seven days hate the interpolated day, because it implies shifting the lord’s day from Sunday one year to Saturday the next, and so on.

The Hanke-Henry Permanent Calendar interpolates a whole week, every five or six years. It does not monkey with the lord’s day calculations, and it has the fascinating side effect that any memorable day (such as your birthday, or July 4th) will henceforth always fall on the same day of the week. Henry proposes that we commence using this calendar in 2012.

A better idea would be plan now, to start using the calendar in 2062. If a great majority of people like it, that is. Here’s the problem:

On the web page I linked to, there’s a FAQ, including this item:

14.) Won't this whole exercise be costly?

It will be about as costly as the Y2K problem was.

Henry betrays a woefully poor understanding of computers in this answer. The challenge of Y2K was to find every computer program that would calculate the date wrong in the year 2000. If that calculation could cause any real problem, then the program had to be changed. A great deal of development effort went into making sure there would be few problems, and the most evident result was that computer departments did very little real development that year. The Y2K problem siphoned off a lot of potential creativity. Companies had less money to buy new hardware and software, because their staffs were working on Y2K. The Y2K cost was great enough to produce a poor year for the computer industry.

Shifting to the Hanke-Henry calendar requires a different kind of effort. Every single program that needs to calculate dates will be wrong. Every single one will have to be modified or replaced. Every program that keeps track of the “week of the year” will have to be changed to handle the 53rd week that will appear in some years.

There is only one easy way to introduce a new calendar, and that is to assume it will go into effect after 99.99% of non-complying programs are no longer in use. We can issue straightforward software libraries that make all necessary date calculations for both the current way and some new way, and use these libraries in all newly developed programs, from 2012 on. We can “throw the switch” to the new calendar when almost all old programs are dead. Fifty years of waiting should do it.

(The easy way to reform the calendar, if it was ever going to be formed again, was before we had computers.)

NOTE 1:Today, changing the way the date is calculated implies changing and replacing a lot of hardware, as well as software. Much hardware has programs burned into it, and some of that software does date calculations.

NOTE 2:Many people claim that the Y2K effort was overblown and mostly unnecessary, because there were, in fact, few problems when we entered the year 2000. My own feeling is that it was the great effort to avoid Y2K problems that produced such smooth sailing. But regardless of how you felt about the Y2K effort, this calendar proposal requires more effort, not less; because we KNOW that no computer program in production today knows how to handle the proposed calendar.

NOTE 3:The Y2K problem did not require republishing any books. A great number of books have information that depends on calendar dates, and many of these will become misleading and incorrect.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Fraudulent Energy Rating:

When our old, old dishwasher died, we bought a new unit that had a very high energy rating. The new unit works almost as well as the old one, and I think I know why. The difference has to do with our infernal preoccupation with very high energy ratings, and what manufacturers do to achieve them.

I remember checking out advice at Consumer Reports about using dishwashers. They advise you that there's no point rinsing and scraping dishes before putting them in the dishwasher. The dishwasher can clean your dishes! What you're doing when you pre-clean is simply wasting water, a precious natural resource.

Our dishwasher came with two items of instruction that surprised me: They told us to pre-clean and rinse the dishes before putting them in the dishwasher, and they advised getting the tap water hot before starting the dishwasher.

I think that this advice enables the manufacturer to make a dishwasher that uses less energy. Making us spend energy and natural resources to make life easier for the dishwasher doesn’t count in the energy rating, and that's unfair.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Touchfire. Not a laptop killer for the iPad:

Touchfire is getting a lot of great publicity right now. I’m sure there’s a great market for it, and I might even try it on my iPad. But almost everyone who writes about it has obviously not tried to use it for serious writing. Critics are gushing about something it just doesn’t do.

The Touchfire is a see-through plastic overlay for the iPad with detents for your fingers. It covers the exact area that the standard keyboard appears in, and apparently it allows you to touchtype much more naturally, without preventing you from doing some normal swiping. And it can fold up out of the way when not in use.

Here’s some typical praise for the Touchfire.

I’ve done some writing on the iPad’s soft keyboard, and with the extra line of punctuation keys that iA Writer adds, it’s bearable. The problem with the iPad’s soft keyboard is that using it requires an inordinate amount of shifting. There are 35 keys on the standard iPad keyboard, compared to the over 100 keys on the real keyboard I’m using right now.

Touchfire will make simple typing easier and faster. But for those of us who want to tell you how fast the quick brown fox is running, and what sort of difficulties it’s getting into, Touchfire is not going take the iPad to some new level.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Fairy Calm:

Accidental typos can produce memorable jokes and even new expressions. I've been told that the old, printed TV guide, which published for many, many years, forbid the use of the word "skit" in descriptions of programs. They never, never, wanted to see the feared typo.

In Emails, I check my name very carefully, because I know I occasionally mistype "Toy" rather than "Toby". I do not want to refer to myself as:  'Toy'!

These musings are a run-up to a wonderful new expression I saw on the web today. I've changed the quote below to make my source harder to find, but I just loved the misspelling of 'fairly':
The protest was fairy calm until people started to target passing cars ...

We could use some of that fairy calm.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Big Football News:

Greg Foolallov, spokesman for Google, confirmed what many of us have suspected since late last Thursday: Google has completed a hostile takeover of the NFL, and now owns all of the clubs except the Green Bay Packers.

“We had to do something with all these profits,” Mr. Foolallov said, “and we think there’s great synergy here. Every ball carrier is always looking for holes, and we think our search technology can help.”

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Fondly remembered:

In 1971 I was working for a timeshare company that enabled people all over the country to write and run computer programs on our centralized systems. We had a satellite office in Washington DC. I programmed a communications computer that simultaneously served sixteen Washington-area users, saving a lot of AT&T communications costs.

The Washington people asked if we could add a printer to their site, for efficient remote printing. My manager, Larry, put me on this project, and I gave what turned out to be a fairly reasonable calendar estimate for the job. It was a lot of work. I had to create many different modules and communication paths, because our system, at that time, had no notion of a remotely connected printer.

In the middle of the project, as planned, I, my wife and our sixteen month-old daughter took a twenty-nine day vacation to ramble around Europe. It was the longest vacation I've ever taken from work, and it was a grand pleasure.

About ten days before we left, Larry asked me how well-documented my project was. I told him I was very much in the middle of things, and there wasn’t any documentation of the planned software at all.
“I want you to document it,” Larry said. “While you're away, I may have someone else work on the project.”

That was fine with me. I was excited to think that I might return from Europe to find that the project was making progress. But I wanted to get the software into a certain state before I left. Doing the documentation in addition took a lot of time, and I just about killed myself getting ready to leave.

I handed everything over to my boss, and came back, well-rested, twenty-nine days later. “Larry,” I asked, “has anyone been working on my project?”

“Oh ... uh, no. No,” he said, “it’s right where you left it.”

I can’t tell you how furious I was. I had done all that extra work, and for what? But Larry was one of the nicest managers I ever had, so I didn’t let my anger show. I unpacked my project. Now ... where was I?

Twenty-nine days is a long time.

As I read through my documentation, the work came back to me, in all its detail. What I had already written; what to do next; what every piece of code was for; and exactly what was missing. And of course, I realized why Larry had made me write that documentation.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Holiday Movies That Even Santa Would Watch:

Neil Genzlinger, a columnist for the New York Times, has given us five modest suggestions for Christmas Movies that, somehow, for some reason, nobody has produced yet. He took a wonderful idea and filled it out beautifully. His column is consistently funny, and it’s right here. Here’s a tease, to persuade you to read his column: the titles of his five suggested movies are:
The title of his essay is the same as the title of my blog item.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Computer Automation: We Shall All Suffer.

Here’s a wonderful example of computer automation: we humans tag photos with the names of the people in those photos. Then, aided by face recognition, the great computer websites take over and tag more photos. Pretty soon we can look at any photo on the web and know the names of the people in the pictures. (And that’s just the beginning. There’s a special class of photos on the web that require name-tagging to be done by identifying genitals. I’m sure some developers are working on that, too.)

Whew. Back to reality. A very nice person, who deserves not to be identified, posted a picture of the musical score to Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe on Facebook. I did not add a link to that picture, did I? I DID NOT ADD A LINK TO THAT PICTURE because I do not want to make bad matters worse.

My inbox is clog-full of notifications from Facebook. Here’s what they say: Jim Jones has commented on a picture of you on Facebook. Sarah Brown has commented on a picture of you on Facebook. Muglia Teragladone has on a picture of you on Facebook.

Facebook thinks that the Iolanthe score is a picture of me! And I suspect it always will. I wonder what other musical scores will be identified as ME in the future.

This mess isn’t just annoying. It’s ironic. I own quite a collection of musical scores, and Iolanthe is my favorite G&S operetta. But that’s as close to Iolanthe as I care to get.

By the way, in my own files, I write dates in sortable order: YY/MM/DD. So today's date is a beauty: 11/12/13 .

Monday, December 12, 2011

Despotic Dictator (the Sim Game):

Maybe someone has already implemented my second idea for a Sim game, but that seems unlikely. Most Sims these days are aimed at young, impressionable children who are likely to make in-game purchases. I certainly wouldn't want my young children to play this game:

You are a despotic dictator. Your goal is to stay in power long enough to squirrel away $1,000,000,000 in foreign banks before the people overthrow your rule. To keep the populace in control, you can offer an occasional carrot, and you can control the news and entertainment media. if you build up your secret police, you can kill the leaders of any revolt against you. Your army, if it is strong enough, can attack large-scale demonstrations. You must be careful not to move your sequestered funds out of the country too quickly! You need some of that lucre to keep your police and your army sweet, and the people will rebel more strongly if if taxed too heavily. You can make speeches that threaten the people, or that appease them. If you are lucky, some foreign country will offer you asylum before your head is stuck on top of a pole.

There is a social aspect to this game. The computer keeps a running calculation of how grungy and despicable you are, and you can compare your despicability scores with your friends.

If you win this game, you are supposed to feel awful.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Big Bang (the Sim Game):

As a software developer, I was excited by the idea of a “Sim” game, when the first one was announced. The great idea was that the software would simulate some realistic action – the development of a city, the progress of a war, et cetera – while I, the human player, made small adjustments to the game’s parameters, to improve progress, or to bend the developments in my preferred direction. I couldn’t wait to play a “Sim” game, and I was disappointed to discover that they are just not my thing.

Over time, many sim games have appeared, some of them terrifically sophisticated, and thinking about how the guts of the software makes a Sim work still fascinates me. But in the real world of computer games, I can’t help noticing that programming a basic Sim game has become a dumbed-down cookie-cutter operation. New ones show up every month. Develop a florist business. Build bus routes. Manage a dinosaur park. Tend a poison ivy patch (okay, I made that one up).

Some of these proliferating Sims may be brilliant games, but the bottom line is that there are very obvious ways to tempt people to spend money inside these games, and the developers are me-tooing each other to death in their eagerness to find yet another unoriginal way to empty our pockets.

I think there should be more originality in Sims, and I have two modest suggestions. Here’s the first one: Big Bang (the Sim game): The computer models the development of the universe, starting with the Big Bang. Each turn, you introduce a few small perturbations into the simulated universe. Your goal is to produce a planet that supports life, and you win if a thinking creature evolves on your planet, smart enough for a dozen of the creatures to cooperate to build a home.

What interests me about this game, other than the challenge of programming it, is the meaning of a “turn”. At the beginning of the game, each turn will represent, perhaps, a trillionth of a trillionth of a second. Later, when you are building your black holes and galaxies, a turn might be a hundred million years. And in the endgame, turns might represent dozens of decades.
Tomorrow: Despotic Dictator (Sim Game).

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Too Small, Too Small, Too Small ...

Dear Jim Romenesko, I enjoyed your Obscure Store blog for a long time. I was sorry when you ended it to do something different. Your new web site certainly is different, but I think you are overdoing what you are doing to make your point.

When I look at all that small type, my heart sinks. I tell myself, I’ve got to hang in there, I’ve got to read it, I know it’s going to be worthwhile ... and of course it is.

The content is fine. Please reformat your main web page so that it doesn’t look so formidable, because, really, it isn’t.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

How good is the Kindle Fire?

The reputation of the Kindle Fire is likely to be settled by online shouts and by its volume of purchases. But it is possible to take an unbiased look at how useable the Kindle Fire is, and to make thoughtful recommendations. Please check out this fine article by Jakob Nielsen, Kindle Fire Useability Findings.

I’m very interested in the 7” device size, and Nielsen has some sober observations about it. Neither ordinary web sites, nor web sites designed for the 10” tablet or the smart phone, are easy to use on the 7” tablet. If enough people buy these things, and if, as a result, enough web sites are designed specifically for them, then they can be great online successes. Read Nielsen to see why.

Nielsen skewers magazine reading and book reading on the kindle as well, and his reasons make good reading.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Tim Tebow and the Giants:

I know of no connection between Tim Tebow and the Giants. I just want to make an observation about each of them.

The Giants are not one of the best teams in the NFL, but they nearly defeated unbeaten Green Bay. The Giants ran a clinic on how to beat Green Bay. Other, better teams will study how the Giants' fine coach attacked Green Bay, and they will do better. Green Bay will be defeated this year, thanks to Tom Coughlan.

I've enjoyed watching Tim Tebow play football. Recently I saw him give an interview on TV, dressed like a human being (not like a football player). He spoke well and gave a good account of himself. Frankly, I'm sure Tim Tebow is not gay.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

AT&T and the Medical Business (yet another AT&T war story):

The old AT&T, the original “Ma Bell” telephone monopoly, got deeply into the medical business in the early 1990’s. I know about this because I worked as a consultant – for about five months – for a unit that AT&T funded for the purpose of taking control of, and coordinating, all of AT&T’s medical businesses.

You’re probably wondering what I mean by “Medical business,” telephonically speaking. I mean that AT&T was selling computer systems that enabled doctors to transmit and analyze the results of MRI’s and other high tech test results. AT&T went so far as to create compatibilities between some of the top medical products, so that various hospitals and medical suites could share and compare their work.

You’re probably wondering why a telephone company was selling medical products. Well: read on.

In the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, AT&T was a problem solver for a great variety of businesses. Networks were quite complex in those days, and AT&T’s feeling was: whatever products you have, we’ll tell you how to connect them. In some fields, the incompatibility of popular products was a bane, but since AT&T was often in charge of connecting things, they got into the compatibility business as well. They recommended products that they knew could work together, and they made deals with the manufacturers to configure them and sell them.

Several branches of AT&T fell into the medical business. Any part of AT&T that suffered through the agony of building connectivity for a medical customer immediately advertized their ability to do so, and tried to expand into as many networked medical products as they could.

The group I was in failed, immediately and spectacularly, to control and coordinate these medically-aware compartments of AT&T. AT&T was a feudal company, so there was no pressure from the top for anyone to cooperate with us. Every other AT&T group that was into medicine looked at us and said, “Who are you? Leave us alone, we’re making money.”

Our group was disbanded, and our funding was taken away, after our own group of marketing experts were asked the key question: Why should AT&T be in the medical business, anyway?

Our experts gave a presentation to answer this question. I believe that what they proposed was correct for AT&T, but it was so lame that we were dismatled at once. I hope that our proposal was bad enough to persuade AT&T to get out of medicine altogether, but I have no idea whether there were repercussions. Here was our marketing proposal, in essence:
When customers see how well AT&T can network medical systems, they will realize that they should go to AT&T to network and configure every kind of business system.

Please allow me to point out how lame this was:

1: AT&T at that time believed that they were better than anyone else at networking business systems. They already had a gigantic budget to press this general case; they did not need the medical projects to augment this kind of marketing.

2: What’s the point of being in the medical business, if your reason for being there has nothing to do with medicine? How is that going to keep you cutting edge or even relevant?

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Pills Stuck in my Mouth:

I got into a ridiculous situation this morning. I take six pills every day. Don’t sneer! Most of them are required by my doctor. To get them down, I make a drink by mixing a powder – also required by my doctor – into a half glass of water. The routine goes like this: collect the pills; measure out the powder; mix up the drink; toss all the pills into my mouth and drink.

Today, the first thing I did was to put all the pills in my mouth. I stood there feeling the total idiot. How long before some of those pills melted into an awful taste? I feverishly grabbed the powder and the spoon, mixed in the water and tossed the drink down as fast as I could. The frantic pill-swallowing did not go as well as usual, but I am so thankful there was no aftertaste.