Archive for February, 2010

Tipping the balance back

February 16, 2010 Comments off

There are moments when you sense the balance is tipping.  Waking up in the Emergency Room, or going back after a surgery failed, or waving off the nurse who explains how a morphine pump works, because you know all about morphine pumps.  The funny thing is that although modern medicine has saved my life many times, without it, I’d only have died once.  In horrible, agonizing pain, but just once.

Each of those situations needed recovery, physical therapy, exercises.  Each was a road back, but they were all obvious from the outside.  Sometimes they overlap.  The one from last summer is ongoing.

Some of them are just little signs, though; a jar you can’t open, or like today, a friendly handshake that brings tears to your eyes.  I’m doing fist-bumps from now on.  But I can’t use the excuse of being afraid of germs; nobody would look at my desk and believe that. 

It’s getting more interesting, tipping the balance back every time.  Sort of a game.

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February 14, 2010 Comments off

(I’ve seen plans for gigantic ships that people would live on all year ‘round, while they circle the globe in a perpetual world journey of Freedom.  Suppose in some post-apocalyptic world, those ships really did become independent states.  What type of government would they have?)

“Hello and good evening.  I’m so glad you could all come to the Ballroom for this dinner, and hear about running the ship on bedrock conservative principles.  For too long, the captain and his officers has required everyone on the ship to pitch in by paying for tickets to ride on the ship.  Passengers are forced to give their money, and then the captain turns around and gives their money to lazy ship employees who shuffle around and “do maintenance” or pretend to keep watch.  I say these functions, if they need to be done at all, should find free-market solutions.

I kid you not: right now there are company employees down in the hold scraping interior bulkheads and repainting them.  These make-work projects are done every five years on a rotating schedule, so there’s a whole crew that does nothing all the time but scrape and paint.  Well I say that the hull-rusting scare is a bunch of liberal hooey.  The ship’s been afloat for years, and there’s no evidence that rusting is caused by failure to paint.  Nor have we ever sunk from weakened bulkheads.  If anybody tells you different, show them the bulkheads; they’re as good as they ever were.

Have you ever noticed crew members climbing up the masts to “clean the contacts” on the wireless and radar transducers?  You’re paying for a “service” that is performed by lifetime employees, who are over-educated for the job and practically covered in so-called “safety equipment”.  There’s no doubt in my mind that this task could be outsourced at significant savings.  As consumers, shouldn’t we have that choice?

Did you know that you are paying, through the ever-increasing ticket prices, for company employees who do nothing but go around and “inspect” the kitchens?  I’m sure that professional cooks know how to run a kitchen.  They don’t need shipping-company bureaucrats telling them how to clean a cutting board.  See those workers going around doing “inventory” on lifeboat stocks and greasing the lifts?  How much are they being paid, when we’ve never needed to use a single lifeboat on this ship?

The same, sad story plays out with maintaining the ship’s steering equipment.  It doesn’t take a high-priced Union employee, let me tell you.  How hard can it be to go along the catwalk and squirt in a bit of grease here and there?  And if the rudder sticks a little, I’m sure the ship can get wherever it needs to go by making a series of long right turns.  We can maneuver around icebergs and coral reefs the same way.

The hard-earned money you pay for tickets isn’t the shipping company’s money; it’s your money and you should have the right to keep it.  If something needs to be done, the free market will find a way to make sure it gets done.  We shouldn’t have the captaincy meddling in our business or taking our money for things HE says are important.  You know much better than the captain how YOUR money should be spent.

Thank you again for your time, and let’s eat!  And when you step into the ship’s voting booth, vote for me – I’m on your side, against wasteful overspending by an entrenched liberal captaincy.  I’ll fight to cut ticket prices and cut wasteful spending.  Thank you, and be sure to try the crab; it’s delicious. “


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Historical figures in modern times

February 12, 2010 Comments off

Just one example, feel free to come up with more…

Last October a guy was busted for being naked in his own home.  It was 5:30 in the morning, and he must not have thought anyone was outside the window to see him while he made coffee.  It was an interesting story but I didn’t follow up on it at the time. 

Well he was convicted of indecent exposure, and while he escaped without serious consequences it could have been much worse.  Like a year in jail, $20K fine, and lifetime sex-offender registry worse.  He’s appealing the conviction.

Anyway, it occurred to me the other day that Archimedes would have been handcuffed, jailed, convicted, and forced to register as a sex offender for running down the street naked, shouting; “Eureka!  I have found it!”  If they didn’t believe that Eric Williamson was just making coffee in his own kitchen, I doubt the court would have accepted the joy of scientific discovery as an explanation. 

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Walking home irritated

February 9, 2010 Comments off

When I got done with work today (not true: it was just a stopping point) there was a blizzard going on.  I thought: the campus is in good riding condition, but what about Normal Avenue?  What if it’s a foot deep in snow?  So I started off on foot.  But when I reached that last half-mile, I found it clean and ploughed; I could have ridden home with no problem.  I froze my ass off for no reason.

But when I walked in the door I found a package full of these:

From my photo album Technology

It gives me a happy, warm fuzzy feeling to think of all the high-quality _______ _____s I’ll make with them.  Anyone?

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Why we’re not going to make it

February 7, 2010 Comments off

In the James Cameron movie; Terminator 2, there’s a scene where young John Connor is helping the programmed-to-protect terminator fix a car.  Nearby they see two kids playing with realistic toy guns, and the game becomes so violent that their mother has to intervene.  Conner asks the robot; “We’re not gonna make it, are we?”  The matter-of-fact answer: “It is in your nature to destroy yourselves.”

From my photo album FAIL

I had that same feeling when I saw this table in our local Wal-Mart.  Not because of violence, but because of our national inability to delay gratification.  There’s no doubt in my mind that the store manager knows his customers, and if they can get a credit card, they’re old enough to vote.  As someone once said; “Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.”

A recent study found that the ability to delay gratification is crucial to personal success and I can’t help wondering if the same is true of societies.  Might a cultural commonality of analyzing, thinking ahead, and investing resources wisely not help a nation as it apparently does an individual?  We’ve pretty much made a national pastime out of ignoring connections between our concerns and those of the rest of the world starting with our doorstep.  Starting sometime back during the Reagan administration, we became convinced that rainy days just wouldn’t happen if we didn’t acknowledge them.

Deficit spending comes to mind, but it’s only a symptom of something much deeper, which is the tendency to wait for emergencies before doing anything.  We just can’t seem to conceptualize sustainability in our use of natural resources, the health or education of our citizenry, our national infrastructure, our environmental infrastructure, or our relationships to our allies and enemies. 

Or to apply that conceptualization to anything as simple as consistently recycling aluminum or refilling a water bottle from the tap.  We seem to have erased from national memory the concept that big problems consist of accumulated small effects.  We are the snowflakes that feel no responsibility for an avalanche, the raindrops that know nothing of flooding.  Being stuck in traffic means it’s everyone else’s fault.

Just for one example, how long have we known that we need to get off the foreign-oil merry-go-round?  Or fix decaying bridges, upgrade our power grid, or equalize schools in poor neighborhoods?  Some problems can be addressed on an emergency basis, but it’s the one (or several) that can’t which bring down empires.  Those problems are much better addressed by the rule of nukes, which is: don’t ever let things get so bad that you need to use them.

Sorry to be pessimistic.  Can anyone tell me why it’ll all be OK?

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So it’s come to this… (AARP magazine)

February 7, 2010 Comments off

I subscribe to a LOT of magazines – mostly science, technology, politics and history.  But the other day I was stretching and the only thing within reach was the AARP rag.  MrsDoF subscribed to it while I was in hospital last year, I think, but this was the first time I picked one up:

“Michael Douglas on his second chance as something something…”
“The perfect panini”
“The lost art of conversation”
“A bunch more articles with similarly boring titles”

Sorry, I couldn’t actually read any of them.  I just can’t make myself give a crap about some actor, for instance.  The advertisements were mostly for rich, very good-looking old people who go on cruises a lot.  And ride Harley-Davidson motorcycles and use cell phones with enormous buttons.  And what’s up with the name?  At the rate I’m going, I should be able to retire sometime during the Paris Hilton administration.

But wait!  There was one article about knee exercises, which I actually read.  I’ve added one of them to my regular workout, to strengthen the muscles that give my knees lateral support.

Thanks, AARP.  And I think your magazine, if folded out flat, will make a great cat-box liner.  So you’re twice useful.

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A thought for winter

February 6, 2010 Comments off

As Chauncey Gardiner would say; Spring follows Winter, and then Summer:

From my photo album; biosphere
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First Contact: octogenarian meets Linux

February 3, 2010 Comments off

My mother received the computer yesterday that I sent her.  We spent about an hour on the phone exploring the desktop together, and she didn’t sound too freaked out by it.  We opened up Gmail, I sent her a YouTube link which she played, she started a Linux guest session for my sister who was visiting, and so on.  To all appearances, they had fun playing around and she’s pretty happy with it.

She informed me that she is getting old.  “I’m eighty two”, she said.  When the hell did that happen?  I remember her making fudge in Iowa City.  No moon landing yet, but lots of Vietnam on our black-and-white television.  And Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.

Anyway, I’ll keep you posted on how she does with it.  There will be a news gap while she is down in California taking care of her mother.

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Bright pink string vs. the Google home page

February 1, 2010 Comments off

In my office there’s a clipboard that everyone uses.  It tends to get laid down all over the place, so time is wasted hunting for it.  I put up a hook on the outside divider wall of my cubicle and hung the clipboard on it.  While it is below eye level (it’s a low divider) it is still visible for the entire length of the room, and is the only object in about 12 square feet of featureless fabric, right next to the desk surface where most people set down the clipboard.  Yet at least two people have been unable to find it while it was hanging on the hook.

There’s more.  Time is often wasted looking for a pen to use writing on the clipboard.  So I tied a pen to the clipboard using bright pink string.  Today I handed the clipboard to someone, with the pen on the board’s clip.  I watched as the person looked at the clipboard, patted his shirt pocket looking for a pen (the bright pink string was touching his hand) and then studied my desk for several moments to find a pen and fill out the form which was directly under the pen.

This is an interesting problem.

All of us have had the experience of not seeing an object because it was not in its normal context, or was in a different orientation than expected.  It happens to me all the time – keys, hat, or a tool that I just set down moments before.  My grandmother had an expression; “If it was a snake, it would have bit you!”  I take the existence of that expression as evidence that this interesting problem is also a widespread, longstanding problem.

It’s easy to build a stereoscopic camera, but object recognition is a difficult computing problem.  It’s not even all that easy for our hunter-gatherer, pattern-seeking brains.  We might see the face of Mary in a cheese sandwich, but miss the eye-level sign that says in block letters: “Please use other door”.  And since both work and commerce depend on pattern recognition, this interesting, widespread, longstanding problem is also of considerable economic importance.

Consider the placement of fire extinguishers, the design of signs, icons, and door handles.  Visit the detergent aisle of your supermarket: it’s a chaos of bright colors where nothing stands out.  But it isn’t just the lack of contrast: even a splash of bright pink string might not be noticeable on twelve square feet of drab fabric.

Whether you advertise detergent, design websites, or write baking instructions, there are several shortcuts to handling attention, perception, and recognition.  The cheap, easy ones – bright colors, moving, blinking lights, and arrows, pretty much amount to tying on bright pink string, and they often don’t work.  That leaves more subtle solutions.

One is the creation of visual triggers.  It takes time to make a corporate logo that gets instant recognition, and changing that logo is playing with the company’s bottom line.  The same is true of safety icons.  How to make them culturally universal, or for that matter, mean the same thing to individuals in the same culture?  Not everyone has the same neurological makeup.

From Design

An effective shortcut in most cases is to include faces.  For deep evolutionary reasons, most people notice faces.  But take a look at any modern magazine and you’ll see that even that hard-wired shortcut can be overused.  As Scott McCloud says in Understanding Comics, greater degrees of abstraction makes for more universality… up to the point where the face is no longer recognizable as such.  But the abstraction has to go pretty far before that property is lost.

Another shortcut is conventional position.  You may invest energy finding something the first time, but cognitive parsimony installs a time-delay before that investment can be triggered again.  So you’ll start by looking where you found it before.  A set of controls or objects that are in a consistent place (as I hope the clipboard hook will become) will, over time, reliably save time.  This is the reason we expect web pages to have basic controls along the top and outer edges, with the logo hot-linked to the home page. 

Still another is extreme simplicity.  Google’s text-entry box in the middle of a nearly blank screen is like a clerk behind a desk when you enter a blank room where everything else is painted white.  The first – almost the only – thing you can do is walk up to the clerk and ask a question.  And yet, the clerk knows the answer to almost every question you could possibly ask.  All you have to do – as James Cromwell said to Will Smith in I, Robot, is ask the right question.  Other wise the answer may be as cluttered as the room is simple.

Still, the Google page is not nearly as blank as it appears on first glance.  I count twenty controls on it, of which two are drop-down menus.  Here Google is combining nearly every trick in the book to push usability about as far as it can go – conventions, position, and making the “website” do the work.  Because while the Google home page appears to be a website, it is really the business end of an inconceivably large and powerful computing system

The handling and exchange of information on the scale of the web is far too vast for (analogues to) bright pink string.  For one thing it is no longer possible to prioritize information.  What will be important?  About the best we can do is work on metadata and systems to make sense of it

What I wonder is: how far can Google’s model be explored for other sites?  Could an e-commerce site use it?  A college? Might all future competition for web usability be in the arena of intelligent response?  Could future web users come to expect it everywhere?  Might we become accustomed to querying our physical environment as we query glowing rectangles today? How will education be affected when information, once valuable, is in limitless supply (and therefore by definition, cheap) and the most important thing will be… the right question?

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Firefox Web Developer plugin

February 1, 2010 Comments off

If you work with websites at all, you need the Firefox Web Developer plugin.  It is a fantastically useful analysis tool, and will make your life a lot easier.  I’ve seen this many times: the really good stuff seems to come from people like Chris Pederick, who created the plugin.  Adobe couldn’t make a tool this good if their lives depended on it.

I made a donation to Perdick, and he sent back a nice thank-you reply. If there’s a piece of freeware that you use a lot, consider its “Donate” button.  I’ll leave it to economists to figure out why there’s so much great stuff that people make for free, leaving payment optional. But here’s my theory: the author wants to know, when someone pays them, that the product was really worth something.  In a world full of “just barely good enough” and chrome-plated sham, real value is all too rare.

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