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Archive for January, 2005

Disorderly conduct (also known as innovation)

January 13, 2005 6 comments

It’s hard to imagine the typical city planner or architect anticipating this:

The rather dull scene in this picture is a parking lot with a building and a fenced-in power substation.  Behind your view is a large dormitory.  On the other side of those obstacles is an apartment building, a Baskin Robbins, a McDonald’s and a popular coffee shop.  So a lot of people have to get past the building and the power station.

In the colored section of the photo there’s a large shipping container – the kind you see on trains or ships.  And between the shipping container and the chain-link fence is a 22-inch space unevenly bisected lengthwise by a curb.  You wouldn’t think many people would walk the forty-foot length of such an odd space…
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… when they could just walk around the building.  But these footprints in the snow reveal just one hour’s traffic on a day when not even all the students are back from break yet.  What gives?

The block is fully equipped with sidewalks, and it’s a real balancing act to walk through the narrow, uneven space.  Since the curb isn’t centered in the space, they usually have to bump their shoulders against the ribbed shipping container as they walk.  But it saves perhaps a minute and scores of people squeeze through every day.  It’s common for there to be mini traffic-jams in the little space.  They’ve been doing it for years.

Society is full of official and unofficial rule-makers who don’t like disorderly solutions.  Walk on the sidewalk!  Cross at the crosswalk!  Don’t go through there – you might twist your ankle and sue us!  And the power company, well they’re downright paranoid about people getting too close to their fences.  But a large percentage of people ignore them.  We can loosely think of these as innovators.

You see this all the time on campuses and shopping areas.  Someone has carefully drawn a sidewalk plan, but you can clearly see paths in the grass or snow where people found their own shortest path.  Then the authorities put up little fences to protect the grass, and a smaller percentage hop over them.  Finally they double-fence both sides of the impromptu path and reduce walking to almost zero. Victory!

Why not wait six months to put in the sidewalk and then put it where the paths obviously are?  A little mud right at the beginning and then years and years of smooth efficiency.

Call it user-testing for the physical world.  Watch people as they interact with your pride and joy and realize – if a large percentage don’t use it the way you expect, you, not the users, are at fault.  It works for doors, coffee makers, lightswitches – anything we feel we have the wisdom to design.

Uh-oh… hope some pointy-headed pencil pusher doesn’t see this and harrumph that people should be kept from taking shortcuts!  They’d rather inconvenience hundreds of people every day than let people find a way that doesn’t fit their plan.

Categories: Design

Splash

January 13, 2005 Comments off

Yesterday the outside was a foggy 55of., but the temperature is beginning a slide (according to the weatherman) to well below freezing.  Of course the atmosphere could not hold all that water as the temperature fell – some of it had to end up in my basement.

I enjoy getting up in the morning, answering email, reading blogs with a cup of tea… all very relaxing.  Much more fun, for example, than putting boxes up off the floor, sopping up water with oversize beach towells, and setting up fans to dry the remainder. 

All-told it probably only amounted to a couple gallons, but 2 gallons of water can cover a huge area on a flat floor.  As someone once said, garbage is matter out of place.

Categories: Personal

Tsunami from space

January 11, 2005 Comments off

Watching videos of the tsunami (usually taken by people who are running for their lives) it’s hard to grasp how deep the destruction went.  The coastline was changed so profoundly it’s obvious at a glance… from space.  Just click on the picture to go to Nature Online’s collection of satellite pictures.

In 1968 my dad took me to Charles City, Iowa to see the tornado devastation.  I remember thinking how much it looked like bombed villages in Vietnam.  Now the imagination conjures up thousands of Charles Cities…

Also check out this essay, What’s really important on UTI.  I hadn’t thought of this:

Deep under the now scenic, placid blue seas of southeast Asia, a geological horror is forming of gargantuan proportions. One which will leave its novel signature for eons in the rocky column. A new layer of strata has been laid down, but this deposit is uniquely macabre. It’s a hominid bone-bed. Mixed in with the newly forming sandstones, limestones, shales, and chalk, are the remains of a civilization. Homes, trees, crops, cars, factories…

Categories: News

So explain this species to me again?

January 10, 2005 Comments off

One of my favorite online comics is Joy Of Tech, which is apparently written by, and for geeks.  Usually they’re just plain silly but this one is quite meaningful.  Two aliens are orbiting the Earth and one says:

“So explain this species to me again?” and the other answers;

“They spend most of their time fighting and creating disasters, yet when there’s a natural disaster, they help each other.”

The caption is: “So are we half-evolved or half-extinct?”

Make that “visible natural disasters.”  The tsunami is rated something like number 7 among natural disasters, but if you figure the body-count from preventable diseases like AIDS and Malaria, the big wave is a piker.

The tsunami has the marketing advantage of being visibly no one’s fault.  This is as “act of god” as it gets, folks.  So we can all gather ‘round and check our charitable giving on the international scoreboard.

As for the body count of our various wars?  Well, we’re too patriotic to question that.

Something else to ponder: I saw a Newsweek headline at the store, “After the Flood.”  It sounded biblical, and set me to thinking.  The Noah’s ark flood story has too many holes in it to stay afloat, but obviously the collective human memory does reflect one or more catastrophic floods.  People like to farm on fertile, flat land, which is usually a flood plain.  Add tsunamis and you get legend-generating events. Hmm…

Categories: Geeky

Rescued wireless card

January 9, 2005 1 comment


A couple days ago we had an ice storm.  Everything got covered with a lovely jacket of ice, much to my delight because ice is pretty.  But there is a downside.

On the morning of the ice storm I slipped on the back steps and fell right on my ass.  It was more undignified than anything else and the worst part was MrsDOF had just warned me about the steps, oh, a minute before.  I picked myself up, dusted off, and went to work.

But my Lynksys/Cisco dual-band Wireless network card (shown here inserted in my rough-around-the-edges laptop) did not go to work with me.  It flew from my shoulder bag, landing next to the back steps where it acquired a thick coating of ice.  For three days I had no occasion to use it so I didn’t know it was missing.

Then today the ice began to melt and I found my card lying in a pool of ice water with water from the roof dripping right on it.  Darn!, I said, or words to that effect, and scooped up the card.  I sucked water out of it through the PCMCIA connection holes, dried it off with a towel, and warmed up the oven to about 110o F.  I turned off the oven, placed the card on the rack, and waited 4 hours.

It works fine.  Whew!

Categories: Geeky, hardware

Going insane with a simple domain transfer

January 8, 2005 3 comments

Some years ago, I registered a domain for a family member and set up a small website on it.  Unfortunately (this being about 1997) the only domain registrar I knew about – maybe the only one available at the time – was NetworkSolutions, also known as Verisign.  The process was a hassle and it was expensive, but I got it done. 

Over the years I’ve hosted her site on a few different hosts but it’s always been registered on NetworkSolutions.  As I registered other domains (I have 19 now) I became aware that there are much better registrars out there.  GoDaddy, for example – their website is clear and easy to use, their FAQ files actually contain information that works, and in a pinch I can call them and talk to a real human.  They act like they really want your business.

It’s hard to imagine a worse registrar than NetworkSolutions.  Their website is loaded with circular logic like “Welcome to form A.  To do what you want to do, go to form B.”  So you go to form B and it says “Go to form A.”  Their database is a mess, it’s almost impossible to update, and just when you think it can’t get any worse, you try to get help from them…
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Their email help consists of pasting in boilerplate gibberish from the very web pages you already consulted. If you call one of them, you’d better have a good long-distance plan, and a phone headset might help too, because you’ll be on hold for a long time. Then the person you end up talking to is no help at all.

I’m not being too harsh on them – this is my assessment after dealing with them for years and struggling with transferring a half-dozen domains OUT of their entrapment. See, their system reminds me of one of those ant traps where the ant crawls in and then can’t get out.

  • It’s easy to register a domain with Networksolutions

  • Maintaining the domain is rather fussy, and Bog help you if they get any contact information mixed up
  • Finally, getting a domain transferred to another registrar from NetworkSolutions is like pulling teeth. It’s like untying a Gordian knot. Oh, they don’t stonewall – that’s illegal and only “unethical” registrars do it (there are a few.) No, their service is just so spectacularly bad, you feel like a color-blind man trying to solve a Rubik’s cube.

The sense of relief when you finally get a domain wrested away from their clutches is comparable to stopping hitting yourself on the head with a hammer. And I’m down to ONE domain – my sister’s. But NetworkSolutions’ public database isn’t updating fast enough so it keeps denying the transfer request. Gaaak!

I will definitely be celebrating when it finally goes through. Free at last! So the point is, when you register a domain, ask around. Find one that acts like they want your business even after they have your business.

Update: 18 January ’05… the transfer is finally done. I AM TOTALLY DONE WITH NETWORKSOLUTIONS!!! YIPEEE!
Update: later that same day… and then Network Solutions sends me a renewal notice for the domain “expiring soon” (in October this year.) HEY GENIUSES, I JUST TOOK THAT DOMAIN AWAY FROM YOU! It’s LOCKED on another registrar, you sorry excuse for a company!!! Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!

Categories: Geeky

Most ironic newspaper article pairing of the day

January 6, 2005 Comments off

One of my favorite newspaper-reading games is finding funny headlines, like “Nuns jailed in drug conspiracy,” or “High schoolers may be required to volunteer.”  (My kitchen is festooned with headlines like that, cut out of the paper and taped up on cabinet doors.)

Another is looking for ironically-paired articles or pictures.  The rules are simple: they have to be on the same page or on facing pages, and be somewhat ludicrous when considered together.  Here are two that appeared on page A8 of the 06 January, ‘05 Bloomington Pantagraph
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  1. “Americans can be proud of response to disaster,” an article touting the generosity of Americans in response to the awful Christmas-day tsunami of ‘04 (in particular, the $350m promised by our government), and

  2. “Just a thought,” giving props for the excellent performance of our $850m Mars probe, Spirit

I liked this juxtaposition because it breaks away from the tired-by-now comparison of how long it takes us to spend $350m in Iraq (answer: just under two days.)  While we’re patting ourselves on the back for kicking in what amounts to a pretty painless amount of money toward the tragedy, pundits everywhere just can’t resist using the “Iraq” as a unit of monetary exchange.  Here we get to use the “Mars.”

I for one am proud we’re spending a little more than double the cost of saving thousands of lives in Asia to discover that there are rocks and dirt on other planets.  It’s the march of humanity into the cosmos, and all that.

OK, that was a joke.  I really am proud of our scientific research, and I’m of the opinion that the robotic Mars probes are worth every penny.  I just hope we don’t break our arms patting ourselves on the back over that tsunami thing.  In the big picture, we’re not exactly giving until it hurts, are we?  A pity, since it’s an opportunity to show our non bomb-dropping, missile-launching, depleted-uranium-firing selves to the Muslim world.

Speaking of which, I heard someone joking the other day about how dumb it was to send an aircraft carrier to a disaster zone.  “What are they going to do there, bomb them out of their misery?”  Now I appreciate a good joke about serious stuff – I just did the same thing two paragraphs ago – but consider this:

Aircraft carriers are practically floating cities, with power, hospitals, fresh-water-production capability, an airport, and a concentrated population of people who are highly motivated to help, and just as importantly, know how to help.  Here is a good rant about that on Varifrank – a good blog I just found from this post on Cajun.

I discovered another good blog today, also from the recommendation of another of my existing favorite blogs, and I’ll tell you about it tomorrow.  Enjoy!

Categories: News

What the heck is a “Captcha?”

January 6, 2005 3 comments

“Comment Spam” is when some lowlife uses the comment feature of some Decrepit Old fool’s Weblog to post their web-links about debt consolidation, online gambling, generic viagra, and so forth.  :mad:   I just cleaned out several comment spams that hit this morning.  This caused me to enable “captcha” security…
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To combat this comment kudzu, I’ve turned on “captcha” security.  When you go to post a comment, you have to read a word and type it in a box before clicking “submit.”  The word changes each time, and usually humans can read it, while the automated scripts that post the spam cannot.  It’s bothersome to my readers and a real problem for the visually impaired, which is why I have not had it turned on until now.

Y’know the worst thing about comment spam?  I get all excited when I get comment notices. Back in college, essay grades were important, sure, but I was most interested in what the professor had to say about the essay.  I love it when readers leave comments – good ones, bad ones, tell-me-I’m-the-antichrist ones, whatever.  Then it turns out not to be a reader at all, but some idiot selling pecker pills.  What a disappointment.

Please email me if you have any problem using the comment feature.  (By the way, if you’re a registered member, and you’re logged in, you skip right past the captcha.  :-) )

Categories: Blogging, Geeky

Just two naked men and a model

January 5, 2005 Comments off

Despite all the jokes, men’s locker-room talk seldom travels along unsavory lines.  Usually it’s weather, sports, cars, work, and food.  This was the case the other day when I wound up talking about network technology with someone at the gym.  We were in the locker room, he getting ready for the shower as I was drying off.  As with most conversations, I’m not really sure how we got onto this subject:

“Bluetooth, wi-fi, wi-max, they’re all incompatible,” he opined.  “Someday one of them will win and it will just be the standard everywhere and everything will work together.”

I replied, “Actually the different standards you’re referring to all exist because…”
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“…because they fill different needs.  There are different uses or physical spaces in which they are a best fit.  What makes it all work together is the higher-level protocols that run across all of them.”

“Protocol,” he said, “now that’s a new word to me.”  He paused, and leaned forward attentively.

I found myself briefly explaining the 7-layer OSI network model and how it made different functions of data transport independent of one another so different physical networks could still function together.  At the bottom was the actual hardware and connecting medium, and then different layers that packaged, routed, regulated and verified the flow of information before handing it off to the application layer for the user to handle.

“Hey,” he said, “in five minutes you just explained more to me, and it made more sense to me than anything I ever read about networks!”1 He seemed genuinely grateful and I was a little embarassed.  I guess people are accustomed to seeing networks as an arcane mystery and are surprised to discover it’s only artifacts, not magic. 

“Thanks,” I said, “Have a great swim!”  He turned and entered the showers.  What an odd conversation, I thought.  But that the subject was as mundane as could be.  The part that interested me was the unconscious travelling that got us there.

Many times I’ve heard people say, “I don’t know how we got on that subject, but…”  The phrase reveals what my old psych professor Orval Crowder used to say: “People go around asleep all the time, and if you tell them they’re asleep, they’ll wake up just long enough to deny it, then go back to sleep.”  That’s what happened here: I had not been awake.  The conversation had turned right, left, straight, left again – all without my noticing.  I was like a driver who didn’t know how he got home.

It’s a deeper and more profound subject than any computer network. If we really understood how conversation works, it could revolutionize education, politics, corporate decision-making, and anything else that requires one person to communicate with another (or with many.)

Compared to human conversation, the rules of computer networking are Lego blocks stuck together by a 4-year-old.  Topic drift is only one of hundreds of variables, which are imprinted on a fabric of cultures, subcultures, and personal neurological characteristics.  Here are a few:

  • Pause time: the length of time one person pauses to indicate the other should respond

  • Eye contact
  • Distance vs. intimacy
  • Variations in volume and inflection
  • Speed
  • Clothing (obviously not a factor in the conversation described here)
  • Social status and the various ways it is perceived
  • Taboos and less formal boundaries of topic

Unfortunately I have the feeling that conversation is like climate models – it wouldn’t do to hold your breath until the definitive textbook is written.

Notes:

1 – “…and it made more sense to me…” I credit the fact that I didn’t have a Power Point presentation ready.  That would have muddied things up real good.

2 – Oh, about that title… my son suggested I spice things up a bit to increase readership.  If you were thinking the OSI model was a tall Swede familiar to celebrity buffs, sorry to disappoint you.

3 – Here’s another pretty good explanation of the OSI model.  I first encountered the model in a book called “TCP/IP Network Administration” (of which I think I understood every third page or so)  and occasionally it’s very helpful in understanding why networks behave the way they do.

Categories: Geeky

Quote Of The Day

January 4, 2005 1 comment

Yesterday was incredibly busy and stressful, so no full entry.  But this morning I read an update on a thread entitled “Why are you here” over on SEB and found this gem:

“Believe that the world is 6000 years old, or is flat, or that snakes talk, if you like, but keep it out of public schools.  And if God tells you to kill, just say No.”
- Zilch

Categories: Uncategorized