Monday, December 31, 2012

Spel Gud, or Els:

This morning I weighed 220.4 pounds.

My father was a lawyer who worked for a socially conscious organization, the American Jewish Congress. Much of his work involved combating prejudice. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, he fought against laws making it difficult for blacks to register to vote in the South, and sometimes argued to get an individual challenge overturned. Tests were administered to blacks who wished to register (that is now illegal). He enjoyed telling us about one man who was rejected due to “errors in spilling.”

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Burnah (slang):

This morning I weighed 220.8 pounds. I’m now entitled to imagine that I have dropped a 4-pound weight that I used to carry everywhere. It’s not surprising that I'm more active.

One of the pleasures of getting old is the ease with which one recovers the memories of youth. This morning, I recalled “burnah”, a slang word that may have died. (I can not find it on the Internet.) The word may have been local to my part of Nassau County, Long Island, NY, where I grew up. It might even have been coined by the one member of our childhood gang whose parents spoke German in the home. That boy certainly spoke “burnah” with relish.

The word’s two syllables were both accented, and both drawn out to taunt: burrrr-naaaaah. Those two syllables carried a wealth of meaning, more or less equivalent to this: Envy me, you poor, miserable suckers! Here are a few samples uses:

Did you hear that Jackie Robinson stole home yesterday? I was at the game, my dad took me. Burnah.

My new toy machine gun can kill all the cowboys and indians at once. Burnah.

For maximum effect, the word could be repeated, with a falling tone at the end: I don’t have to go to school to play basketball. I just got my own basket at home. Burnah! Burnah.

Every year, more new words enter the English language. I guess it won’t hurt to lose a few.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Tea: not so simple...

This morning, my scale claimed that I weighed 221.2 pounds.

Last night we enjoyed an all-you-can-eat buffet at a Chinese restaurant. I learned that my, shall we say, “diet to live” instincts do not run deep. Oh, eating and eating was such fun.

I always use chopsticks, and I always read the paper label before ripping it off. Chinese restaurants have had so many years to get the text right on these wrappers, that I no longer expect to be amused by their approximations of English. But I was surprised. Here’s a quote from my chopstick wrapper:

Please try your nice Chinese food with chopsticks the traditional and typical of Chinese glorious history.
And culture

This was a small restaurant and there were few diners. The staff consisted of a maitre d’ who doubled as cashier and waiter, and also took takeout orders on the phone. He did everything in a loud, resigned and friendly voice.

After we gave our order, I asked for tea. The man hurried to the kitchen, and then he yelled something that I never, ever, expected to hear at a Chinese restaurant:

“How do you make tea?”

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Chinese Restaurant Buffet:

This morning I weighed 221.2 pounds. Tonight I expect to eat at a Chinese restaurant that has an all-you-can-eat buffet. I expect the worst.

In the 1950's, the three miserable bat characters in the Pogo comic strip always carried a pack of cards, one of which said: Come to Meebles. All you can eat, $99.95 (that's about a $billion billion in today's money). It's all very well to make fun of all-you-can-eat restaurants, but they are lots of fun, especially for people who are not on a diet.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Amazon, did you have to delete many helpful book reviews?

I weighed 222.0 pounds this morning. My weight generally goes up after a day in which I drive for many hours. (I'm a very relaxed driver.) I counted my calories yesterday and did not expect this little bounce.

Amazon has apparently banned authors from reviewing books in their own genre, and many authors are angry, especially those who took the time to write dozens of reviews that have been deleted. I have a horse in this race, because, having written a fantasy novel, I can no longer review fantasy novels at Amazon.

I'm not quite sure whether Amazon looks at other websites to decide what an author's genre is, but if they do, I probably can't review self-help books either.

I have a better suggestion for Amazon: remove the star (*****) ratings, and let any reader write a review. Without stars, the reviews will speak for themselves.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

In Which I call upon Fox News to Carry on the great battle:

Fox News has continued to fight a war against the War Against Christmas. Recently, their efforts have gotten lame enough for the Doonesbury comic strip to make fun of them.

But a new front has opened up in the war against Christmas. I’m sure I need only expose it, to provide new meat for the commentators at Fox to get their teeth into. Let me explain:

I walked around town today, and of course most stores were closed. In their windows I saw a sign that I’m sure you saw as well. A sign that is an affront to decency. It said:

Sorry, we’re closed.
Can you imagine that? “Sorry”, on Christmas day? Here’s what those signs ought to say, if Christmas means anything:

Hey, everyone, we don’t have to work today, because it’s Christmas. We’re GLAD to be closed today. Glad, you hear me? Glad!

That’s the spirit. You won’t find that sign anywhere, although you should. Instead:
Sorry, we’re closed.

That’s the story, and I hope Fox will get right on it.

In the interest of full disclosure: This writer, who appreciates the way his fellow Americans enjoy the December 25th National Religious Winter Celebration, is Jewish. Happy Holidays!

PSEG in NJ: A failure to communicate.

I weighed 221 pounds this morning. Excellent.

The power went out last Friday (strong wind, heavy rain).

There are many things our power company could do to make us safer from power outages, and to restore power more quickly. These things cost money - probably a lot - and it’s unlikely that PSEG will be given rate rises to do them. But PSEG could do a much, much, better job of communication. I wrote about this issue before, but here are some observations:

1. The “outage map” at their website tells me only the estimated outages in my entire county. It should be more detailed, showing my town, the links that are without power, and their status. PSEG has that very data on their intranet, I’m sure. Share it with us!

2. PSEG’s website claims that we can get the best status info by following them on Twitter. I tried that, and saw dozens of messages like this: “Heckfire, call 800-555-5555. We’ve got a problem.” “@Loser255, we saw you reported your probem, and we’re getting right on it.” All these twitters say nothing about SCHEDULE and PLACE. They are useless.

3. I can call PSEG (800-350-pseg), and its computer uses my phone number to give me status about my area. At 10:45 this morning, the recorded message told me that their “investigation” will be complete by 10:28. Their computer system should avoid promising action to be done in the past! I had to wait to speak to a human to discover the (improved) current status.

PSEG, Comunicate!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Ironic, or not?

This morning, I weighed 222.0 pounds, and I intend to weigh less tomorrow. A person identified as “AS” Left a comment about my attempt to diet, after I revealed my age. Let me quote:
If you are [old], then why do you need to reduce weight? You should just sit in the easy chair, write good books like raven's gift and do blogging. Also, you should snack as much as you like and exercise only if you can. … you should take a well-deserved break as you must've done your share of work and exercise before.

My angry reaction was to rebut AS’s insinuations. Then it occurred to me that I’d been fooled by an ironic compliment. (I rather like it when I fall for someone else’s joke, as long as I don’t fall too far.) So first of all, thanks, AS for your comment (compliment?), which adds to my determination. And second, I’d like to rebut you as follows:

I refuse to be one of those old men who “have the right” to sit, snack and take it easy. I’ve seen their bodies in the men’s locker room, and I refuse to look like that! Not just for vanity. Those big round bellies and heavy, tremulous legs can’t be healthy.

I refuse to believe that only a certain amount of exercise is required in life. Among the matters my exercises attend to are: preserving my ability to lift a suitcase into the trunk of a car; improving my balance so that I won’t fall; and turning some of my fat into muscle. I’ll never play volleyball or touch football again, but old men need their muscles to work.

When I contemplate losing the next five pounds, I imagine that I have been carrying a five pound weight everywhere, and I shall at last be allowed to set it down. Ditto a ten pound weight. Just try carrying a ten pound weight around, and dream about NOT carrying it.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Best 7 Ways to avoid “Best of” Lists:

This morning I weighed 222.8 pounds. I think I’m poised to lose more weight this week.

The web is awash in “Best of” and “Worst of” lists. Magazines love them, too. Writers love them because they involve little writing effort. Select your list items, describe them, and you’re done, unless you must make that mini-Herculean effort of ordering your list from best to not-so-best. Readers love them, too. A “Best” list is easy to comprehend, requiring little effort to follow a sustained argument or analysis of kind.

In this blog entry, I’ve saved you, I hope, from two lists: the one that’s not here, and the one you didn’t read when you decided to read my blog.

“Best” lists are a mental crutch. Don’t get dependent on them.  

Saturday, December 22, 2012

10,000,000 Armed Guards to Protect us against GUNS:

National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre made an impassioned request for armed guards at every public school. Many sensible people are cutting his idea into little bits, but I’d like to add my own analysis.

Bruce Schneier has identified his type of response: LaPierre wants to spend a great deal of money to deal with the LAST disaster. But terrorists and crazed gunmen aren’t total idiots. If one target is protected, they’ll attack another. So let’s take LaPierre’s logic where it’s going:

Public schools will be protected with armed guards. So people with guns might attack private schools. Better put an armed guard at every one of their buildings.

Private schools will be protected with armed guards. So people with guns might attack colleges. Better put an armed guard at every one of their buildings

Colleges will be protected with armed guards. So people with guns might attack theater events. Better put many armed guards at every theater and concert hall.

Theater events will be protected with armed guards. So people with guns might attack AA meetings. Better put an armed guard at them. Etc. Etc. Etc. Etc. Etc. Etc. Etc. Etc. Etc. Etc. Etc. Etc. Etc. ...

Now hiring and arming all these guards seems to solve our unemployment problem. But where will the money come from, to buy their guns and pay them? When we have 10,000,000 armed guards protecting all our gatherings and schools and concerts and Christmas singalongs, we must notice that the work of these guards adds NOTHING to the national economy. The USA needs productivity, not people holding guns and standing around.

And: we will need a giant bureaucracy to screen applications for the armed guard jobs. There’s no way that every armed guard will be perfectly screened. A few, just a tiny few of those 10,000,000 armed guards might be the people we are guarding against.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Brian Boyko asks Microsoft to Recall Windows 8:

This morning I weighed 223.4 pounds.

Brian Boyko has produced a delightful, fun-filled, animated video about his difficulties in trying to use Windows 8. Brian is a techie, and his intention was to benchmark the new OS, just as he had previously benchmarked Vista, a MAC OS and Linux, doing some productive tasks.

Trying to use Windows 8, he hit sixteen tons of frustration. His video conveys his adventures quite amusingly, but in the process, he makes me feel that Windows 8's UI is pretty vile.

Other people who stufy man/machine interfaces have raised similar complaints. I strongly recommend his video to all of you who are willing to hear the f- word.

Bear in mind that millions of people may find their way through all of the issues Boyko (and other researchers) raise, get used to the darned new interface, and learn how to work effectively with it. I'm reminded of a story:

I attended a lecture by one of the first people to study human/computer interfaces in the office. He had studied one piece of equipment that enabled people to compose and print interestingly laid-out pages. Its user interface was absolute hell. He asked one woman how she felt about this machine, and she surprised him, saying, "I love it!"

"Why?" he asked.

"Because," she said, "whenever I manage to make it do what I want, I feel wonderful."

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Why so many Devices (2):

Today I weighed 223.6, which means I have bounced back up by 1.4 pounds. I think this is a temporary setback; stay tuned...

Two days ago I listed the devices I have that need regular recharging. Yesterday, I implied that some of them should have been replaced by general purpose computers. Let's look at what I think are my exceptions:

Why do I have a feature phone? I could have an iphone instead of the feature phone and the ipod. I think the answer is that the iphone, a general purpose computer (and its smartphone competitors), has not gotten generalized enough. Smartphones are relatively expensive as phones, and many smartphones do not make phone calls very well. Since I do not need all-the-time connectivity, it makes sense for me to have a device that easily makes reliable phone calls, plus the ipod touch. Within a few years, there will be more variety in smartphone pricing, and I will replace these two devices with one.

Why can't the ipod replace my Striiv? In principle I think it can. But the current ipod and iphone may not be good enough yet, at detecting when I take a step and when I climb stairs. That will change too, because better sensory devices in future phones will sell newer games. When smartphones have better sensing abilities, I will choose a "pedometer" app, and my smartphone will have replaced two other devices, the feature phone and the striiv. Oh, and a multitasking OS may be needed to enable "pedometer" apps to work. iOS may be the wrong OS here.

Why can't my iPod replace my old Nokia N800 pda? It can't. That device has a superb spreadsheet interface that is just right for managing a packing list. I have a very long packing list, and I charge the N800 up whenever I need to pack for a trip. My N800 survives because, in effect, it has a highly specialized user interface. (The rest of the N800's UI is disappointing, one reason why the device fell by the wayside.)

Please note that my iPod could attempt to replace my iMac's magic trackpad, but the trackpad holds its own by being inexpensive and very comfy to use.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Why so Many Devices (1)?

Over time, a rule has emerged about computer devices: the general purpose computer will replace special purpose devices.

For example: we have had calculators based on a computer chip since the 1970's. Today, very few people buy calculators, because they have calculator apps built in to their telephone or tablet or other portable general computer device.

In the late 1970's and early 1980's, word-processing machines were a big market. They were driven out of business by much poorer, and much, much less expensive programs that ran on IBM PCs.

Price plus convenience enables the general computer to wipe out many special purpose devices. But there are exceptions:

  1. Highly specialized user interface needs: there are plenty of genuine guitars out there. A computer keyboard, or perhaps a music keyboard, plus a general computer, can replace a guitar, but not very well. Your hands can do all sorts of things with a guitar that no one has learned to emulate with a real-time standard computer interface. And in a live performance, a guitar is a show-piece.

  1. Convenience: You might need quick access to your special device. You may not be happy, say, using your phone and switching contexts to your calculator app, every time you need it.
  2. Hardware specialization: There are situations where you require a device to have really unusual inputs and outputs. A violin; a mixing panel; an air traffic control seat.

Highly specialized needs prevent a general purpose computer from swallowing up a specialized device. Now, why do I have so many rechargeable, mostly computerized, devices? (See yesterday's blog post for the list, and tomorrow's post for the answer.)

Monday, December 17, 2012

Recharging as a way of life:

This morning I (again) weighed 222.2 pounds. Not bad.

I've been thinking about all the devices that I must often recharge:
  • My feature phone
  • My iPod touch
  • My iPad
  • My Striiv (superb super pedometer)
And less often:
  • My Water Pik
  • My razor
  • My magic trackpad
  • My emergency radio, a newly received gift
And before each trip, because it manages my packing list so well:
  • My old Nokia N800 PDA.

Fortunately, my watch runs a few years on a replaceable battery.

I'm sure I shall have to update this entry when I remember the other device or two. Tomorrow I shall riff on a related topic: why so many devices?

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Let's Treat the Second Amendment like the First Amendment:

This morning I weighed 222.2 pounds. Apparently I really am dieting. I'm hungry, I still eat too much sometimes, but things are getting better. (I started dieting two weeks ago, at 225.)

Now I would like to turn to a serious topic. Here are the first two amendments to our constitution:
Amendment 1
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or
prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or
of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition
the Government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment 2
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the
right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Note that the first amendment says “no law” regarding freedom of speech. But we have laws that regulate speech. In fact, we have hundreds. We may have started with the observation that it should be illegal to shout “Fire” in a crowded theater.

Laws regarding what this amendment says shall be “no law” have multiplied. Today we have an extreme case: the Patriot Act makes it legal to charge a person with a crime and forbid them from discussing the charge with anyone, except “in person” with their lawyer (not by email or phone, etc.). Many of the laws restricting free speech make common sense. Some seemed good at the time. They are there by the hundreds.

The second amendment does not specify “no law” regarding the bearing of arms, but says those rights must not be infringed. Common sense has eaten into this amendment as well. For example, our rights to bear a machine gun on a passenger airplane have been sensibly infringed.

Here's my plea: why can't we turn common sense loose on the second amendment as much as we've done to the first? Just as “no law” means “lots of law”, let “shall not be infringed” mean “shall be sensibly infringed”.

Bring it on.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Guns don't kill people; People kill people; much, much too easily.

I have tried to imagine suitable punishments for a grownup who murders dozens of little children. Sadly, I can't imagine a civilized society utilizing any of them.

I weighed 222.4 pounds yesterday (good) and, after attending a party last night, 223 pounds this morning (not so good). And here comes another challenging weekend. My goal is to weigh no more than 223 on Monday...

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Half a notch on my belt:

This morning I weighed 222.8 pounds. I'm VERY hungry and struggling to resist many urges to snack. One sign of my diet: this morning I pulled my belt in one extra half-notch. Now what's a half-notch on a belt? I'll explain.

I've been wearing my belt with the prong stuck in the third hole from the end. The fourth hole was too tight. But this third hole was too loose, and sometimes I had to hitch my pants up. I had a solution for this, but I hated to do it when my belt looked so nice: I thought about using the leather-punch in my Swiss Army knife to add a hole between the third and fourth holes; that would have been just right. But I hate to add an amateurish belt hole when the belt looks so nice.

This morning I easily put the prong into the fourth hole. Weight-loss has to be a factor here. One can hope.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

“New low-cost appliance … How it Works:”

This morning I weighed 223.6 pounds.

The full-page ad for the heater that I wrote about in the last two days has a paragraph titled: How it Works.

Note to would-be ad-copy writers: We learn from this example that the last thing you want to do in such a paragraph is to describe how the unit works. There are no equations, no descriptions of actual technology. If your mind is half awake, you might read this copy and think the device has been explained. Here is some text from this para:

“… takes care of all the cold spots. In fact, it actually produces bone-soothing heat.”
“... saves you money based on a U. S. average that says it uses only about 9 cents of energy an hour on the standard setting.”

I guess we're tired of hearing about this product, so I'll change the subject. Again, who knows? The heater could be wonderful; I know nothing about it. I just feel I've gotten to know their ad.

Monday, December 10, 2012

“New low-cost appliance … no doubt:”

This morning I weighed 224 pounds. After a week of dieting, perhaps I've lost one pound. That's okay, considering that I survived a dinner party last night; I didn't pig out.

The product I mentioned yesterday – I won't link to it – calls itself a modern, high-tech miracle heater. For some reason, the ad, in my opinion, suggests that this heater is an Amish invention. There is a picture of two Amish people carrying one, and the caption of that picture calls it the “Amish Miracle Heater.”

To me, the Amish people stand for a life-style that tries to restrict the use of modern technology. I imagine the Amish people taking time out from their life-style to make brilliant inventions based on their own preferred technology, not on modern high-tech technology.

I would not expect Amish people to invent and build a heater that has a micro-furnace “from the Coast of China”. (China has an awful lot of coast. WHERE in the coast of China?) I would not expect Amish people to invent and build a heater that has Hybrid-Whatsit technology.

Nonetheless, for many years I have seen ads that link the Amish to amazing heaters or furnaces. People write ads like this because they WORK. I can't imagine why, but this one must also work.
If you're curious: somewhere in this full ad, the involvement of the Amish is made explicit: Amish craftsmen build a cabinet of real wood to make each unit look like a sleek fireplace, and all that we buyers have to do is: plug it in. Perhaps the Amish are more involved in the heater than that, but I think the ad doesn't say so.

Please note: for all I know, this heater is a wonderful product. I'm just commenting on the wording of the ad. And I haven't even gotten to the paragraph titled: “How it Works”.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

“New low-cost appliance that helps slash heat bills:”

I weighed 223.8 this morning. Not as bad as I feared.

My title (above) is part of a headline ad from one of our newspapers. It's full-page, with several pics and lots of small-print text. The headline of this ad fascinates me. The entire ad is full of text that tries to make you think “A!” while only promising “(something related to A)”. The headline, I think, is an example of what I mean. It doesn't say that this product will slash your heating bills. It merely suggests that if you have already discovered a way to slash your heat bills, their product will help.

If I had found a way to slash our heating bills, I would be writing about that, instead of blogging this blog.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Diets … a bad day:

I don't weigh myself on Saturday mornings.

Today's diet did not go well. Facing a smorgasbord of treats, dainties, deserts and delights, I forgot, for many minutes, that I was dieting. I can't shout, “How could I do that?” because I've often done it before. In order to gird my loins against snacking every calorie-laden temptation, I gave myself a list to memorize. This is what to expect if I just keep on eating:

  • Diabetes
  • Foul taste in mouth hours later
  • Weight gain
  • Bad digestion
  • Poor sleeping
  • Tiredness, exhaustion, shortness of breath
  • Old-man-breasts, and
  • something too disgusting to mention.

I skipped dinner in hopes of minimizing the damage. Tomorrow I'm attending a dinner party. Monday morning, I just want my weight to be lower than when the diet began last Monday: less than 225.

Tomorrow I expect to blog about something that ought not, I think, be about the Amish.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Color to Grayscale (4); a Design Folly:

This morning I weighed 223.4 pounds. Weekends are difficult for me, filled with tempting treats. And I must attend a dinner party on Sunday. Good luck to me...

In the second installment of this story, I mentioned that in order to design our software changes, we had to agonize about whether our CRT displays or the operator workstations were more important in our system. Such distinctions are likely to be meaningless to users of the finished product, but a wrong decision in design can make the software much harder to write and debug. I faced a similar situation – this time, a horror story – 25 years later.

I was working on software for a TV Set Top Box, one of the first commercial ones to support digital TV channels. The base of the software had been written before I arrived. I and my co-developers only needed to make some changes newly requested by the customer and swat a few hundred bugs.

The original software design assumed that the tuning frequency of a channel defined its nature. (Over-the-air and cable channels, which can be digital, still have to be tuned to, in order to receive the channel's video and data.) If the software knew the frequency of a channel, everything else about it could be inferred, such as its channel number and its broadcaster (e.g. ABC or CBS).

There were many, many layers and separate units in the software to handle many necessary functions that might not directly concern the TV viewer. We were under great pressure to finish the software and get paid, and it was with horror that I discovered the major design error: the overall software should have assumed that the Broadcaster, not the channel frequency, was the primary identifier of a channel. I shall explain why, and you won't need to know about software to understand.

HDTV standards allow a channel to specify what channel it “really is”. For example, the analog frequency that we might use to capture channel 2 (whether over the air or by cable), might specify that it is really channel 42, broadcasting Bravo. And a few hours later, the frequency for channel 66 might take over, specifying that now IT is really channel 42, broadcasting Bravo. Shifts like this take place “under the cover” within the software. The viewer will tune to channel 42 at all times to see Bravo.

In our software, what had seemed like a straightforward design became a mess. For example, suppose the viewer wants to record a program on Bravo at midnight. Our original software assumed that it could schedule this request at once, knowing how to tune the STB at midnight to see Bravo. But now, we knew that our software actually had to figure out, at midnight, where Bravo was, before tuning to it. There were hundreds of cases like this.

The software cried out to be redesigned, so that the broadcast channel would be the unique identifier for every tuning action. You can rarely convince anyone that redesign is the fastest way to finish a software project, so instead we patched and patched our logic until, miracle of miracles, it worked.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Color to Grayscale (3):

This morning I weighed 223.6 pounds. I think my diet is starting to work.

Yesterday I mentioned the TV studio video switch that our customer wanted for his process control system, to enable any operator to see what was on any color CRT from any workstation. For some reason, two of the CRTs had to be grayscale, not color. So we agreed to provide hardware to convert color video to grayscale for these two CRTs.

My company always did fixed-bid work. Each contract we took on had one price without any escape clauses. We had to calculate costs in advance, very, very carefully. We usually worked with one particular company to provide any special video needs, and we asked them to design the color-to-grayscale hardware. They estimated $20,000 (which might be about $100,000 in today's money) and we took that cost into account in our fixed bid. This particular contract was harder to implement than anticipated, and that $20,000 estimate stuck in our minds like a sore thumb, especially since the subcontractor, a very busy small company, seemed not to be working on it.

We pressed for status, for preliminary designs, and … nothing.

One day, shortly before we went into final testing, one of the senior guys from this subcontractor showed up with a metal box, about the size of a deck of cards. It was open on one side so we could see its innards. It had three video connectors for the R/G/B inputs and one connector for the grayscale output. Inside the box were a few wires and a few resistors. It worked perfectly.

When I proudly showed our director that the grayscale problem was solved, he exploded. “They charged us $20,000 for THAT???”

He demanded an explanation from the subcontractor's president. The guy mildly said, “You know what this fixed bid business is like. Sometimes you lose money, sometimes you make more than you expect. When we made our estimate, we thought the video converter was going to be expensive to develop.”

“I'm not paying $20,000 for THAT!” my director shouted. Eventually, I think we compromised for $5,000, which was still a great overpayment.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Color to Grayscale (2):

This morning I weighed 224.6 pounds. (My pretty darned accurate scale reports weight to fifths of a pound.)

Yesterday I spoke about the scary risks of developing software on punch cards. I'm thinking about one specific contract my company undertook. Briefly, our typical system offered the customer a number of seats that operators could sit at to issue commands and watch factory status on a CRT. Our typical system sensed hundreds of inputs and manipulated hundreds of control outputs to help manage a factory process.

This particular customer wanted our standard system, but with a switch: a video switch that would enable each of 16 operators, anywhere in the plant, to see what was on any of the 16 CRTs. This was a color system, and they had specific TV studio hardware in mind to do the video switching.
We developed this system, but at the start of the design process, we agonized over one detail for a whole week. We knew this issue would not be noticeable to the customer, but it would have an enormous affect on our software:

Were we developing a system with 16 CRTs, each displaying informative output, that 16 operators could connect to? Or were we developing a system with 16 operator workstations, each of which could see any CRT display they wanted to see?

This question was important because our pre-existing software assumed that each operator workstation and its CRT had specific capabilities that were designed for each operator. In order to develop our new system, we were going to separate each workstation's data and capabilities from its display capabilities. And in the process, we would have to decide, as Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty said, Who was Master? The operator controls, or the critical displays?

Eventually we decided that our new system would have 16 workstations that could see any CRT. And I think we made the right decision, because those little surprises (in terms of work order changes and unexpected clarifications from the customer) never threw us.

Tomorrow I will talk about one small feature of this project that we paid a subcontractor $20,000 to develop (that's in 1975 dollars); and how upset we were at the price, when the developer delivered it in one day.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Color to Grayscale (1):

I weighed 225 pounds (again) this morning.

In the 1970's I worked at a company that sold monitor/alert/control systems to companies that wanted, for the first time, to use computers to control their factory processes. Our software consisted of thousands of punch cards, each containing one line of code. What would happen if such cards got out of order?

The software wouldn't work, that's what would happen. I worried about that because cards can be dropped from time to time, or just mislaid. And then getting them back into order would be a frustrating, time-consuming process.

There was a well-known way to keep the cards in order: place a sequence number in the rightmost columns of each card. When the cards were in order, the sequence numbers would count up, e.g., like this:
… and so on.

Putting sequence numbers in the cards was a nuisance in itself, and no programmer wanted to waste time doing it. Suppose I needed to add a card to an existing card-batch like this:
That's very little typing. Would I also look at the two cards I needed to place before and after this new card, figure out the sequence number of this card, and space all the way to the right margin to insert the number? Not likely. And suppose I wanted to insert a card between 00001022 and 00001023? There's no number between those two sequence numbers! I would have to make copies of a bunch of cards with new, more widely-spaced numbers, in order to make my new card fit. There was a machine to help me automate that process, but hey, we had to fix a bug in a hurry! So most of our cards had no sequence numbers.
My concerns – as a manager – were that cards might be dropped, or that a disaffected employee who expected to be fired would reorder some of the cards. (I think that never happened.) Much later I discovered a more realistic concern: that one programmer who stayed late into the night to help us meet our deadlines would sprinkle a few cards into the wrong drawers when he was high, very high, on Marijuana.
Punch cards, what a horror. But we made good money from that software system, and I have two amusing stories to tell you, in the next few days.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Diets, Diets, ....

This morning, I weighed 225 lbs.

In my life there have been two successful diets, in the sense that I took some weight off and kept it off for over a year. The first: I convinced myself that I could have a heart attack if I got any heavier. There was no medical evidence to suggest such a thing, but I feared heart attacks, and that worked.

The second: I took my doctor's advice to heart, and I determined to eat a low-starch diet. The cornerstone of that diet was a breakfast of fried veggies with protein. It worked.

I want to get back onto diet #2. I believe I have the fulcrum to shove me onto it. It is about as strange a reason for dieting as I can imagine:

At the fitness center where I swim, I saw a remarkable sight in the men's locker room. I am bursting to tell someone about it. I want to tell all of you about it. It's kind of gross, but I think we can all enjoy envisioning it.

Unfortunately, I know that if I told anyone, I would feel shame. Terrible shame. I believe I need to lose about ten pounds to be able to tell this story without shame. (When I'm able to tell it, you'll understand why.) So I shall blog my ongoing weight, along with, I hope, some interesting anecdotes to feed your own appetites. And perhaps three months from now, I'll tell you what I saw in the locker room.