Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Solving Problems

One of the computational tasks that's intrigued me for quite some time is how you teach a computer system to solve a problem. For basic problems, the path is pretty obvious -- make up or determine an algorithm, code it, and then apply it to problems for which it's suited. As problems become more complex and textured, it becomes a question of finding out which algorithm is suitable, or which is more suitable. At some point, it starts to evolve into a system for the creation of algorithms, because you can't make one for every possible situation. At some point after that, the system starts to do interesting things, like claiming that the AE-35 unit is about to fail. And we all know where that leads.

Last night, as I was putting the new PC away, having finally gotten it to work, I thought about this a bit. In retrospect, I could have shaved hours off the resolution time if I'd realized that the migration software tool that I'd used had carried along certain registry settings, and then second, with the modem, where it somehow trashed (I don't know exactly where) the ability of the system to use the perfectly fine connection. The Dell people seemed to be working through a checklist, but not a particularly good one -- at one point, they said they'd replace the system, but I thought this seemed overkill, given the results of some experimentation I'd done, and eventually, they suggested that I just do a system restore. They recommended the Dell version, but I chose to do the Microsoft one, which says it won't mess with your program files (mostly true) . The Dell one says that it most certainly will. And it worked. Registry looks fine, modem connects with no problem.

It would have been nice to have a software solution that could help me to that solution, though. I tried thinking backwards -- okay, here's the solution, now how could I have best gotten here, and done so in a way that didn't rule out other, equally viable, options -- but I didn't get very far. I've used some of the Microsoft canned solution engines that are in the Help function, and they almost uniformly are too lame to consider as an actual 'engine'. They probably do work for people who need to be reminded that in order to work, the modem (if its an external one) must be plugged in. But past that level of abstraction, they tend to flame out. I get the sense of an infinite loop. Since my own patience is considerably less than infinite, I can't swear that if I'd Just Stuck With It, it wouldn't have eventually come up with the answer. But I don't think so. An experienced person usually knows when to try quick fixes first, and my sense it that the software wouldn't do that. It tries easy stuff.

Basically, I want a bright little AI engine popping up, advising me what might work best, next, and why. Something that learns over time, and can be downloaded and upgraded at will. (For a nice example of what an AI service can do, see the Twenty Questions site I mention in the post just below this. What's particularly interesting is that it shows how it got the answer. Some of its suppositions are totally hosed -- yet they work. Intruiging.) . I'd buy a service that helped me with this kind of question -- even a subscription service. (Now, there's an idea...hmmm....) .

Of course, if the tool were built by Microsoft, it would sneer at any software on the PC that was more than six months old, and simply recommend replacing all of it. The hardware, too.
Side note: Last night, I mentioned to my wife that what I wanted was an answer to this problem, and I wanted it RFN. Whereupon my daughter, who had been reading, looked up and asked what RFN meant. Umm....its an acronym, like ASAP. Know that one?

Monday, November 29, 2004

Twenty Questions

This is an amazing site. It successfully guessed bra, pencil, and computer, and came very close to truck (said 'car' at question 20, got 'truck' at questions 23)

Sunday, November 28, 2004

What we have here....

is a failure to communicate.

I fixed the problem with IE showing the wrong release number. I guess it would be more accurate to say I sidestepped it. What I did was to find where in the registry it was listing that old release number, and change it to the new one. Hey presto, things related to that started working. I ignored the fact that there are about ten other places the old number still exists. What I should do is delete or rename that whole key, then see what happens. And maybe someday I will.

But right now, and for the last four hours, I've been trying to get the damn thing to dial out, and been totally unsuccessful. If I connect it to the router, and thence to the cable modem, all is well. But if I disconnect that and either plug my external modem into the serial port or plug a phone line into the COM port, nada. No dial, no lights, no noise, no nothing.

What Dell tells me is that the modem is working fine -- the Query Modem command makes it spit back messages -- and I am willing to believe that. But it is as useful as a rock, because it just won't dial out. Got something to do with that COM port -- a misconfiguration somewhere. Its driving me so nuts, I'm going to go into the office to work tomorrow -- because I know that if I stay here, I will want to keep diddling with it.

Gah. Thanks, Mike.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Technical Travesties

Trying to make the new PC work. Lost much time because of a BIOS failure. Finally got it up and running. Earthlink (the ISP used by the person who owns the new PC) turns up its nose, says the installed browser level is unacceptable, must download a higher version. Of course, the logical inconsistancy of it refusing to start because of the browser level....and therefore not being ABLE to do the download, fails to amuse. So okay. We bring the damn PC back home(so I at least don't have to keep crawling around on the floor at the relatives house), upplug the cable connection from my PC, hook it up to the new PC. New PC says cable connection? What cable connection?

Swapped the connection -- first connected to the router (which is hardwired to my PC; we use it for wireless connectivity to a couple of laptops) then to the new PC, then the router, multiple times. PC refuses to recognize the connection. This cable swapping is getting old really fast. Finally, duh, thought 'Why disconnect the cable from the modem to the router just to connect the new PC? It's a ROUTER, dummy! Get a spare CAT5, connect the new PC to one of the open slots!" So I do that. Turn to the new PC.

And the internet connection....fires right up.

HUH? What the heck is the logical difference between feeding the PC directly from the connection coming from the cable modem...and feeding it that which comes from the router?

Oh, relative to an earlier post about Mike Dell et all lying? The PC came with XP Home and IE5. The Dell web site says XP comes with IE6, can't be changed, badda bing.... But it won't let me do an upgrade to IE6. Keeps saying 'Can't do it, can't do it, can't do it' . And if you go to the screen where it says Add/Remove Windows Components, its not at all clear if it really does deinstall IE when you say to. Looks like it...but I would bet not. So I am still messing with this....thing.

A T-Day to remember.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

More Christmas Recommendations

The other day, I was driving in to work, fumbling as I did in the storage compartment of the center console (not the one under the passenger's seat; you would be amazed how the state police don't take kindly to seeing a van whiz by with no one visible in the drivers seat...which reminds me of the story about Bill Lear, of LearJet fame, and his daughter) but anyway --

I was fumbling for a CD, having finally gotten tired of the one that I'd been listening to, the last several days, and what I pulled out was one that I'd completely forgotten about -- Bering Strait, a Russian country band. I know, that sounds very weird, but they're pretty talented. I popped it in the CD player and immediately dialed up to tracks 10 and 11, which are both hard-driving could-have-come-from-Nashville pieces. You can hear samples here. Got to say, it perked me right up -- though I think that if anyone had heard me trying to sing along with track 11, the catchily titled Porushka-Paranya, I'd probably have had to undergo an immediate sobriety test.

Another CD that I really like was created by a very talented pianist named Greg Maroney, whose music (samples) can be heard here. I came across him quite by accident -- it turns out that his mentor is the brother of a doctor my family used to have (until she quit for a year to spend time with her children; imagine !). His music is peaceful, but not bland; melodic, but not gimmicky. I'll tell you how good I think he is: even the samples on his web page sound good.

And that's it for now. Got to get to sleep so that I can drive up to the in-laws tomorrow. Should be fun. No, really!

Glum Day Thoughts

I was advised, in a comment to a different post, to come up with a different way to astonish my wife in bed than the one I had mentioned in the post, and last night, I did. I think I should go back to the other way.

What happened was this: I took a dose of a new type of insulin that I’d been advised to slowly ramp up over time. It hadn’t had much of an effect, first two nights, so on the third night, I ramped it up again. And it hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. At one thirty in the morning, I shoved my wife awake -- my coordination having gone to hell -- and muttered that I wanted her to ‘check me in ten minutes’. I was shivering and shaky. My blood sugar reading had dropped to half of what a normal reading would be, and I was in sad shape. I recall lying there, feeling my blood pounding, thinking ‘I’m not gonna die....but I’d sure like to, right about now’.

Took about half an hour for it all to calm down, and for all the sugary stuff I'd gulped down to have an effect (I'm talking mass quantities of food, here; and while I'm half asleep, too), and then another half hour for me to get back to sleep, to awaken hours later feeling as if I’d been pounded. Groggy, lethargic -- all the great getting up in the morning feelings. I like to say that I wouldn't mind getting up early if I could do it late in the day. Today, even that didn't hack it, because I did get up late -- or, at least, an hour later. So, I think I’ll go back to the other way of astonishing my wife. This way wasn’t any fun at all.

On a different note, I was thinking about cancer today. I do, every so often, and it is always because I’ve been thinking of a good friend of mine who died last year from it. I suppose an oncologist would say that you can no more say ‘it’, referring to cancer, than you can say ‘vehicle’ without specifying whether you mean a Lamborghini or a Mack Truck. But to me it’s the thing that killed my friend. What I was thinking about, in a very non-biologically-accurate way, is how cancer works its nasty approach, and how it might eventually be stopped and eliminated. I don’t know this, of course; though I enjoy reading about medicine, and I like knowing a little bit of anatomy, I know there are people who know tons more than I who would not dare to offer any but the most general statements about how cancer might be defeated. And in a sense I don’t care any more, because it already killed my friend. I take that personally. Yet I also want to believe that it will be stopped, because evil -- sorry, that’s how I think of it -- must be stopped.

Of course, seeing how good we are stopping all the other versions of evil, perhaps I ought not to hold my breath?

Tuesday, November 23, 2004


I'd like to recommend a book.

I don't do it much, mostly because most of what I read is ephemeral stuff, and partly because when I do, it comes out sounding like one of my fifth-grade BookReports:

This was a really neat book and I liked it a lot. I liked it because a lot of neat stuff happened in it. The author wrote about stuff that I really liked, and that made it fun to read. I was sorry when the book was over. This was a good book and I think you should read it.

The book is Califia's Daughters; the author is Leigh Richards, aka Laurie R. King. She's got a web site where she lays out all sorts of interesting things about her writings. Turns out she's written some other stuff that I've read and liked.

But not like this. Califia's Daughters is elegant. It's captivating. It's got believable characters. It's got mastiffs. It's got dappled sunlight in a quiet room and people dying, quite surprised. It's got seriously evil people. It's got Heroines -- lots of them -- and a couple of Heroes, too.

It's really a good book, and if I was the kind of person who liked to say Highly Recommended, I would.

I liked it. I think you should read it.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Christmas Suggestions

Two excellent sites:

Holy Cross Abbey -- 'Fraters' -- moist fruitcake covered with thick dark chocolate.

Two Smart Ladies -- home made soft biscotti. Quite tasty.


Sunday, November 21, 2004

Christmas is Coming Early This Year

Yes, I was surprised, too, but I checked the calendar, and it seems right: Christmas is coming on December 25th, which is to say, about four weeks earlier than I'm actually ready for. Last year, through compulsive activity, we had all of the Christmas cards stacked and signed three days before Thanksgiving, and into the mailbox the very next day; this year, we're at the 'you bought cards, didn't you?' stage, looking around vaguely as if they're going to leap up, waving, Here we are! like would happen if life was, say, a Disney flick.

But not to worry, because the Merchants of America have mobilized to make this the bestest Christmas ever! At least, according to the latest issue of Real Simple (I know, an inherent contradiction there, but one which is easily resolved if you think of the magazine's title as Martha Stewart-less Living), which lists a LOT of things you can mail order from people who are quite good at making beautiful little things. And not to be too snide, they really are nice -- the guy who handmakes chocolate using mint from his own garden, for example -- exquisite, I'm sure, if wasted on people like us who think that downing half a dozen Oreos with milk is near perfection.

I do enjoy reading the recipes. Maybe this year, I'll actually make those truffles....

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Point and Curse

Next week, my wife and her sisters are going to gift their mother with a new PC. The PC was delivered to us yesterday so that we could do any configuration that was needed. It was pretty straightforward, for the most part -- time zone, language to use, that sort of thing. XP rocketed right up -- something to do with not having any programs to run on startup, I expect -- and then I looked at the desktop, and at the start menu.

My oh my.

Laden with Dell specials, and offers for dial up services, and a mixture of programs, some of which were obvious, some of which were not. A pointer to Notepad was in one folder, while a pointer to Wordpad was in another. Some Dell specials having to do with their multimedia offers were over here, while some stuff to do with Real Audio was over there.

System configuration took about fifteen minutes. Moving stuff around on the Start menu, so that it was logically grouped, took about half an hour. Much of that was identifying stuff that the intended recipient would likely never use, and moving it into a subfolder. Some of it was finding things the recipient would likely use -- Word Perfect, Wordpad, Notepad -- and putting them up front under a generic 'Writing Tools' folder.

Went from about twenty up-front folders to about six. Kind of makes me wonder why this configuration isn't drag-and-drop option, right at the menu. I can't imagine it would be that big a deal. But whatever -- its done.

Now we just have to figure out how to migrate the Outlook Express folders, the existing files on the old PC, and all of that. Should make for great fun, come Thanksgiving. I'll definitely be ready for that Italian pumpkin roll !

Blogs, And So Forth

I haven't been doing all that much blog-reading of late; the people who employ me have tumbled to the fact that I wasn't very busy, and have Take Steps to Change That. It means that days will go by without looking at blogs that interest me. So, as an excuse to go look now (exactly why I need an excuse, when it's Saturday morning, I don't really know), here's some that I have found and like:

Stacey's Shmata .... Feet First .... Motherhood Is Not For Wimps

Partial Truths .... Angineer .... Political Fictions

Adventures in Japan ...Searching for Blue Sea Glass

I'm not sure about this, but I think that what ties all of these together is that they are usually (but not always) written by accomplished women, or they're creative, or they're conservative. Perhaps all three, on occasion. Whatever, they're interesting reading.

The other day, my daughter asked what makes a word obscene, and I dithered a lot before saying that I didn't really know -- that there wasn't any objective standard. And then I told her the Beetle Bailey navel story, to illustrate (pun intended) the point. She liked it.



Friday, November 19, 2004


...comes the analysis. It's not much of an analysis, but then again, it wasn't much of a rant. I don't tend to rant that much. I get mad, sure, and then I get over it, usually fairly quickly. Not this time. This time, I was mad for a while.

Three reasons come to mind.
First one: I really was (and still am) pissed at the poor level of tools that I have to do the job that I do (or more accurately, to do the job that I like to do, as distinct from the one that they pay me to do). I've used some decent tools in the past, and though they had problems, they were lightyears ahead of where I am now. It bothers me, probably more than it should, that my organization thinks so little of me, and of that function (because no one else has decent tools, either). It makes me feel undervalued.

Second one: It bothers me that I don't have the gumption to just say the hell with this -- if I am doing a job that I really don't want to be doing (don't get me wrong, its not a terrible job, it just isn't what I want to do) but I'm not willing to quit and go find a place to do what I do want to do, then that speaks poorly of me. Its not a world shaking thing, but it does bug me. I've always been this way, though. I don't quit, even when, perhaps, I should.

And third, we have a customer who is bureaucratic to the max, who made a stupid, but bureaucratically sound, decision today. I hate stupidity. I'm always afraid that its catching. Not literally, no, but still. So it just generally torqued me off.

I think thats enough analysis for right now.

This is a rant.

It has no redeeming social values, no funny stories, no attempts to be insightful, none of that. It is purely and simply a rant, because I am pissed off. At myself, mostly, but because I can’t admit that its me, I have to be pissed off at something else. And so --

Why is it so incredibly hard to get useful software? Is it me? Is this one of those Taxi Driver comments, where I am saying Is it me? Is it ME? It MUST be me, because there’s nobody else here. So, is it me? Am I just expecting too damn much? (A faint voice answers. I ignore it.) Is it that there is so much free stuff, so much incredible stuff available for a cheap price that I have grown totally unaware of just how complex this stuff is, how locked in a design is so that even if it WAS possible to make something smoother, easier, by the time the product actually gets out the door, trailing bugs and bug fixes, the LAST thing that anyone wants to do is make it EASIER?


Last night I got this Bright Idea. I am looking at a problem -- well, that’s part of it. See, Looking at Problems is not my job. Its something I like to do. I’m not all that great at it, but the nice part is, very few people even like to do it, so its not that hard to be better than most people. But its Not My Job. Its what I like to do, what I want to do, what I used to do when I worked where I used to work before I took their early retirement package, but it Isn’t what I do now, and if you aren’t convinced of that, I have a manager who would be glad to tell you. He’s a nice guy, he really is, and in a managerial environment where most managers are dogmatic as all get out, he’s really a good guy. But he’s also a Company guy, and so when he says I know you like to do that, Bill, but THIS is your job, he’s saying So KNOCK IT OFF!


I was looking at this problem, when I thought that it would be nice to get the numbers into Excel and mess around with them a bit. Now, I like Excel. I’m not an Excel wizard, but I can do a couple of things. So I took the numbers, got them downloaded to the PC, read in the file, dorked around a bit, and hey voila, theres a graph. Which told me a couple of things I didn’t know.

About seventy rows of data, three columns wide plus the time. Ok, worth the time.

Okay. So now I say Gee (this is where I should have had someone hit me on the head with a rock), if ONE days data was fun to look at, then getting it for SEVEN days would be even more fun. So I run the job to create the numbers, up on the mainframe, and then I get the reports and I run the Rexx exec to scan the output and create a little bitty extract, download it, open up the spreadsheet.

One download for each day.

And for the next hour, I open up each download, strip off the rows I don’t need, strip off the columns I don’t need, sort it, stick identifying titles on the tops of the columns, cut and paste it into the original spreadsheet, plot the whole damn thing, and look at it. to make sure it fits right.

And it tells me one or two more things. Not seven thousand, not seven. One or two. It would have been worth about ten minutes of my time. Not a whole Damned hour.

Nobody made me. Nobody asked me. And you know what my manager would have said. No ones gonna thank me for the time, where I work most of the people don't even like this stuff, and they don't ask me because they have this OTHER person who says he knows how to do this stuff, though he doesn't really -- like a stopped watch, he's right about twice a day -- so why in the hell did I do it?

Cause I thought it’d be fun. And it WAS fun. But not TONS of fun. If I could have just dumped the data into the Datamatic, said Hey, see this? Take these numbers and do the same thing, it would have been about right. But I couldn’t, because the software, slick as it is, doesn’t Work That Way.

So I wasted a bunch of time doing something nobody cares about but me.

Dammit. And other words I won't say. But I'll think 'em.

I know, I know. Poor little me, whimpering in the corner.

But Dammit......

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Sitting at School

This afternoon, I sat in the back of two different classrooms and watched the interplay of class and teacher -- part of the school's three-day program to involve parents. As things go, I suppose that three days out of an entire year isn't all that much. I enjoyed it, though.

A lot of the reason was that one of the two classes was science -- basic physics -- and unlike the first time I sat through this stuff, I knew the answers this time. Constant velocity! I wanted to call out, as he was looking for someont to explain what a graph with a flat line halfway up the Y axis was demonstrating. And when he asked what a graph of the speed of a pitched baseball would look like, I was delighted when, of the four kids going up to draw it on the board, only my daughter got it completely right (though he said that he would accept a graph showing the ball with a steady velocity immediately after being pitched, I knew that a purist would naysay it. Me, too, but in my case, it was just being picky). I took a moment at the end of class to tell one girl, who'd had her hand up most of the time, that I was impressed by how often she did that, and she lit right up. I like when I can do that.

The other class, unfortunately, wasn't a class- they were taking a test for the entire period, so I got to watch my daughter screwing up her face, trying to remember stuff that I know she studied, because, dammit, I was there helping. (As a result of which, I now know what the Interior Plains are, not that I've ever heard the phrase any where else. And Lake Effect, that staple of Buffalo weather reports.)

Don't know if I could do that job, but I admire the people who do.

Merger Musings

So Sears and Kmart are going to merge, hey? Let's hope they don't call the combined entity something cute.... like S-Mart.But I'm sure that has already been rejected.

Growth by acquisition or merger (political correctness favors the second, reality the first, as when GM took over Electronic Data Systems as their captive data processor) is an interesting way to grow. When the market is stagnant relative to your past performance, its a quick way to boost profits. Of course, its also a quick way to torpedo yourself -- the most recent major event of that type which I can recall is AOL and Time Warner, but I'm sure there are others.

Doing the due diligence to evaluate the prospective fit is an art, not a science -- though a comic that I saw yesterday in Funny Times put it well: three stern men in suits sitting at a table with Santa, saying 'It's a perfect fit -- you're fat and jolly and we're lean and mean'. And no matter whether the merger is successful or not, there will be fall-out as executives activate golden parachutes, and grunt level employees are shown the door.

I wish them luck. I do hope they keep the blue light special... and I rather like the Martha Stewart cookware. Martha Stewart/Craftsman tools, though...there's a synergistic thought. I can see the ad now -- "Tools With Style".

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The Engine is Broken

I've decided that the economic engine of this country is broken. Kicked to the side, hood up, white cloth tied to the antenna. The reason for this conclusion is simple. I can't find a decent replacement for my Fry Daddy deep fryer.

There are larger ones that I could get -- about a foot square seems to be the norm -- but I don't want a larger one, I want the one I have. And to be fair, this one works just fine -- or it will, once I get the congealed mass that used to be the plastic cover out that someone left across the fryer top when it was plugged in; my, doesn't that oil get hot. All I really need is a new cover. I'll have to make one, but heck, what's the deal, some heavy-duty aluminum foil, folded over about six times, ought to do it.

But the problem is that I thought Heck, lets just get a new one. How hard can that be? eBay, Shopping.com, Froogle, JCPenney, must be loads of them. Nope. All the possible replacements are way too big. I'm not looking to fry for the multitudes, here. Besides, it has to fit into the little kitchen garage, along with the ice cream maker and the coffee maker and one or two other things. To handle those potential replacements, I'd need a double-wide kitchen garage, easy. So, no replacement. In this great land of ours, no replacement.

The engine is broken.

Intellectual Incest

So, Condi is going to replace Colin, hey?

Well, that should certainly put a damper on all of those nasty differences of opinion at Cabinet meetings.


Sunday, November 14, 2004

Closing Notes for the Day

A quiet but interesting evening.

We finally got around to trying the recipe that's posted below. A bit of work, but the results were quite nice -- though we agreed that next time, we increase the number of patties that we make. These were BIG burgers.

Had a Serious Talk with the offspring. That's unusual -- we get along so well with her that usually only a quiet word, or just a raised eyebrow (the Vulcan parenting method of choice), is enough to let her know that there's a problem. This time, though, she'd make a serious mistake two days running -- once, while my partner was visiting a friends house, taking a younger girl for whom she was acting as a 'mother's helper' and hiding with her in the garden when it was time to go, refusing to respond for fifteen minutes. She got the riot act read to her on the drive home by her mother, and was so impressed by it that she came to me and gave back her allowance for the week -- which we had not asked her to do, but which I decided, after reflection, to accept. Then, the next morning, her mother decided to accompany us to church, which set off the offspring, because she likes going just with me -- it's time that is just us, and (more significantly) I let her get away with more at church than does her mother. She threw a royal funk. So we talked, this evening. I warned her it was coming, because I don't think its fair to drop out of the sky like a ton of bricks, if for no other reason than that this is a kid who likes knowing when something unusual is about to happen -- as this was. I think she understands the severity of our feelings, and why we were mad. Once we were done, though, I made sure that she had no doubt what our basic feelings were and continue to be, about her. She's a great kid.

We need a wide trivet -- say, about six inches wide and a foot or a bit more long -- to go on the dining room table, to receive hot bowls and such. Got to be good looking -- polished stone comes to mind, though I've no idea where to find someone to make it, let alone find one already made. This is clearly a Problem of the Idle Rich.

I am reading a couple of books at the same time -- both are science fiction. One, The Miocene Arrow, is elegantly written, though the plot wanders back and forth so that it doesn't get decisively advanced all that much except every fifty pages or so. The other is Califia's Daughters, about what happens to society when the male population is decimated and the prevailing society -- what's left of it -- becomes a matriarchy. I haven't read much of it so far, but I really like the writing style -- direct, forceful, descriptive.

And that's about it. I think this is the most I've posted in one day, ever -- if not, damn close. Must be a literary drought coming....

Barista Burgers

From an article in the New York Times
Adapted from Tammy Wilson, Chef at Baristas

1.5 lbs ground round
1.5 lbs ground chuck
1/4 cup finely chopped onion
2 to 3 cloves of garlic, minced
5 tablespoons soy sauce
5 tablespoons honey (preferably ThistleDew Farm West Virginia honey)
1/4 teaspoon Emeril's Essence (or Bayou Blast! Essence for a spicier burger)
1.5 teaspoons ground ginger

1. Preheat a grill.
2. In a large bowl, blend the ingredients
3. Shape the mixture into six patties. (Patties will be large!)
4. Grill to taste.
5. Serve on sourdough buns with lettuce, tomato, and onion.

We did plain buns, no additions, and the burger was terrific.

Terrorists, Auditors, and Thinkpads

I was just thinking about terrorists, because I read a provocative article in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. And before that, I had been thinking about auditors, because my job involves working with people who worry a great deal about what auditors think. And I was thinking about Thinkpads, the laptop made by IBM.

I am still reading the small, intense book about terrorism that I bought at a bookstore in London while we were on vacation, yet in a way I think that I learned as much about why terrorists do what they do from the NYT article, written generally on the topic of the hideous actions taken by kidnappers and terrorists in Iraq. The article is well worth reading, though intense (at one point, about three quarters of the way through, the writer says 'if you're still reading....', because he knows that this is not light stuff, not something that people enjoy having with their Sunday morning breakfast). He goes on to make several key points (not gainsaying all that went before); terrorists who perform and record hideous acts are doing so for two reasons: it raises their credibility with people who are moved by that kind of activity (raises what used to be called 'street cred'), and in so doing it makes them more of a 'player'; further, it brings others into their camp, if not up to their campfire, and inseminating them with the thought that truly, anything is permissible. And the other thing they do is present us, and any who have proclaimed a desire to eliminate them, with this conundrum: if you are seeking to eliminate the swamp rats, you'd better be willing to get face-down into the swamp. High tech, long distance weapons do not kill cockroaches; immediate, on the scene in-your-face actions do. In so saying, they are betting that a civilized nation will recoil in disgust from what is found to be necessary, and retire from the battlefield, leaving them the victors; if they do not, then they become ideologically the same as those they wish to destroy, losing any mantle of righteousness. I do not like this argument, as it is akin to 'yadda yadda yadda..and the terrorists will have won', but it seems to have several kernels of truth, to me.

Auditors -- well, one connection is simple: Auditors are corporate terrorists. And I would guess that they get the same message: truly, anything is permissible. Now, I don't deal with auditors routinely, but I do deal with and work for people who do. From that, I get the message that all bets are off. Used to be, you could be audited against general standards. Accountants had (and still have, I guess ) Generally Accepted Accounting Principles; doctors and lawyers have professional standards; other professions do, too. So your performance in what you do could be checked against those standards, however vague they might be. Over time, standards got tighter, thanks in part to our pals at, say, Enron (who recently filed to have their case moved out of Houston due to inflamed passions there -- said they couldn't get a fair trial. As if that were ever at the top of their personal accountability list. Or even on the list) and WorldCom and all of their ilk. Laws such as Sarbanes-Oxley, referred to by the cognoscienti as SarBox or Sox, came, intending to hold those executives personally liable for the integrity of their financial statements. Okay, thats fine. But now, apparently, we have auditors with a licence to kill. Not literally -- not yet -- but in all practical purposes. I recently was briefed on the results of an audit wherein the auditor wrote up things that he felt were 'inefficient'. Not wrong, not questionable, not opening a liability or exposure -- just 'inefficient'. And the corporation (for which read, the peons in my department) had to scramble before deciding that they could ignore the comments, this time.
I think what's happened is two things -- first, the people affected by the auditors and the audits directly, having to sit with them, spoon feed them information, and cosset them, are distant, organizationally, from the people who direct that they be sat with, fed, and cossetted. They simply don't know what its like. And second, the auditors are being told, find dirt. There's always dirt; if you can't find it, you're not any good at what you do.
This isn't the way it ought to be. Auditors can provide an honest, unbiased, standards-based look at how an organization performs, but they're being turned into corporate assassins by managers who believe that by unleashing auditors without restraint, they are crafting a personal and organizational defense, should legal liability ensue at some point. How could we have known about (fill in the blank) -- we let the auditors see all they wanted to! In essence, they're outsourcing insight of their own organizations, and the devil take the hindmost.
And as we know, corporate executives surely do know how to outsource.

Thinkpads -- well, maybe they don't know enough about outsourcing. I've got a Thinkpad that was issued to me by the company that I work for. Its an acceptable machine -- not as sleek or light as the Dell laptop that my wife's got, and with no where near the battery life (the battery meter was built by IBM's marketing department, I think; in one on-battery editing session, it went from '61 minutes left' to '49 minutes left' in about six minutes. And isn't that what marketing people do -- say performance is going to be about twice as good as it eventually turns out to be?) It's a slow, cranky machine, too -- waiting for it to boot all the way up is about a 5-7 minute process; I sometimes imagine little gnomes inside, down in the engine room, swearing as they shovel coal into the boiler that's being stoked to provide power. I half-expect to hear a steam whistle blow, hear a slow chuff--chuff--chuff.... The Dell comes right up -- not instantly (which is what we all want, I think), but in about half the time. Its nice.

I do know that I have unreasonable expectations when it comes to PC software. I expect elegance and functionality. I get good enough, with bells and whistles. Sometimes the bells and whistles are appreciated, and sometimes -- as in the case of the latest release of Quicken -- they annoy and irritate me enough that I delete the product and swear in the general direction of California (which, last I heard, was where Intuit is based).

Take mainframe capacity planning, for example -- a subject about which I know a little. I think that for, oh, seventy or eighty percent of it, doing the planning is pretty straightforward. Put the numbers in, turn the crank, look at the output for reasonability. That kind of planning should be readily accessible to anyone with an interest. Does such software exist?


Once you add the complication of performance -- not just 'will this workload fit into the space that's open in this box' but also 'will it perform to these standards', then you start getting in to modeling. There are some very bright people working in modeling of computer software, and they know buckets of interesting things, including things that perhaps are only of interest to other modeling geeks. Poisson distribution, anyone? So I would understand that software for them would be more difficult to understand and to use. But I've seen some of it, written by some very bright people, and I've been told by others that this is truly excellent software. Which has led me to the conclusion that either I'm not as knowledgeable as I think about it -- totally possible -- or the emperor really doesn't have any clothes.

I know, I know -- if I'm so smart, why don't I write some of this stuff?

How does inability, so I can't, and lazyness, if I could, hit you?

Friday, November 12, 2004

Late Night Thoughts

I astonished my wife in bed tonight.

We were both drifting off to sleep, talking about this and that, and got onto the subject of religion, when I told her that the thought of death terrifies me. She knows that I am not fond of religion - I like the idea of religion, I like virtues they promote, but I don't particularly care for the institutions - so she was surprised to hear me say that, since she personally gets a lot of solace from the practice; consequently, she would think that if the idea of death terrified me, I'd want to be involved more with an organization that promises death won't be a bad thing. I guess it makes sense, but I can’t bring myself to do it. I think that religious people are looking for security in their daily lives and hope for the future, both of which are good things; they also want a sense that their life matters to someone -- I suppose in this context I should say Someone -- because it often doesn't seem to matter to anyone whether they live or die, prosper or fail. I’d like that security, but I can’t seem to find it in religion. Or anything else.

So dying terrifies me. I want to believe that either I just go out, never to be heard from again, or that my consciousness gets recycled into another body ( I like the idea of reincarnation, because it implies that I have the chance to see again people that I would like to see again. I guess it also implies I'll see people again that I didn't want to see again, or at all -- Hitler reincarnated? ) But the possibility that yes, there really is a judgment, that scares me. Because no matter how benevolent a God there is, I just can't see that deity looking me over and saying Yep, come on in. I'm not a bad person, but I'm not particularly Good.

That series of thoughts about the reason for religion got me to thinking about sports teams. I am not a sports fan. I don't understand how people can get excited about sports. Admire it, enjoy it, sure, but to listen to the discussions at my office, they attach their identity to some degree to how well 'their' team did. Tiger Woods not doing so well? They agonize over his decline. The Red Sox win? They are deliriously excited. I wondered if its a spin-off of the religious idea -- that by identifying with the team or the player, they're saying that there is a part of them that is rich, powerful, respected. I'm sure there are people writing sociology papers and dissertations on this kind of thing. I'd love to read them. I might not understand them, but I'd love to read them. The cool part is, half would say Yes and half would say No. Well, some might say It Depends.

I remember reading one of the Aubrey-Maturin naval novels (which I loved, pretty much all of them), wherein Maturin, the scientist (among other things) says confidently "I am a urinator", to the surprise and dismay of the captain, who tries to cut off his conversation, only to have Maturin continue on, it becoming apparent that what he is referring to is the act of diving (I think with the aid of a diving apparatus, not sure). I wondered at the time what word could possibly be taken to mean 'diving' when it currently has the meaning it does. All I could think of was that sleazy joke about Uranus and Klingons.

The author of one of the blogs that I like to read mentions that her favorite musician is Barry Manilow, and then says 'Deal with it". I was tickled by that concept, and by her aggressiveness about it. I think it makes perfect sense that she should like him -- the older I get, the more I appreciate music that's presented well, and done with style and flair. Not to say that there aren't musicians whose work appeals mostly to people much younger than me who do it with the same level of professionalism, but I don't know of them (after all, they're not talking to me). Manilow delivers, no doubt about it. I was surprised, the other day, to realize that I enjoy the singing of Tom Jones. I remember liking his work, oh, thirty years ago, but still? And yet, he fits the bill -- he's professional, he's creative, he does it with flair. He delivers.

Back to sleep.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

This is not an Onion article....

...though it does make me want to cry.

From CNN/Money

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - ABC affiliates in at least eight states will not televise the network's broadcast of the World War II film "Saving Private Ryan" because they fear repercussions from U.S. regulators.

Affiliates in Alabama, Georgia, Iowa, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina and West Virginia said they were worried about running afoul of the Federal Communications Commission in Washington.
WOI-TV in Des Moines, Iowa, for example, said it decided to pre-empt the Academy Award winning film, which depicts several violent battle scenes and contains foul language, over concerns about possible fines by the FCC.

"Would the FCC conclude that the movie has sufficient social, artistic, literary, historical or other kinds of value that would protect us from breaking the law?" WOI-TV President Raymond Cole said in a statement appearing on its Web site. "With the current FCC, we just don't know."

Janice Wise, spokeswoman for the FCC's enforcement bureau, told Reuters it had received calls from broadcasters asking if the film would run afoul of the agency's indecency rules. Wise said the commission was barred from making a decision before the broadcast "because that would be censorship."

"If we get a complaint, we'll act on it," she said.

It's an interesting question.

It's the responsibility of government to rule on the acceptability of what's presented in a public medium. Greatest good for the greatest number, and all that. They can't censor, but they can and should offer an informed opinion. To say, in effect, 'we won't give guidance on how we'd rule, but we will come after you later if someone complains' -- well, that seems just plain rude. My gosh -- even the IRS offers guidance on how they'd likely rule. Not every time, but in significant cases, yes. I think that when you're at a point where you aren't sure if something would be viewed as legal or not, that qualifies.

Not playing 'Gotcha!'


Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Talking with the Teacher

This evening, we had a scheduled Parent-Teacher get together. It was pleasant, with the child playing ringmaster based on a script (literally) drawn up by the teacher. Since the script included multiple time when the child wrote down what she was going to do in the future to address the (not many) deficiencies, I asked for a copy of it to bring home. This surprised the teacher. Maybe all of the other parents have excellent memories.

But what got my attention was when the teacher rattled off the child's grades for this period == two As, four Bs. Not great, not bad. Drop her GPA some, she could be President.

Then I noticed that both of the As are things she doesn't like - Reading, Spelling.

And three of the four Bs are things she does like - Math, Science, Social Studies.

She does better in things she doesn't like. And worse in things she does.


Sunday, November 07, 2004

Comfort Food

My tastes in food are plebian. I know that. And I have been willing on occasion to try new foods -- though my idea of new foods tends to be imported strawberry jelly instead of Welch's Grape.

But there are times when I need comfort food, and today was one of them. I am, I think, still disturbed by the outcome of the election. I thought I was getting over it -- after all, I started thinking about politics (and how to handle this calamity which has befallen my country), and economics (and how to save my money when this maniac's fiscal policies cause our economic structure to crash around me) . Hey, I was getting over it.

Apparently not. I've been sleeping a lot, ten hours last night, an hour today, and even though today was atypically beautiful and warm, I was tense, out-of-sorts. Even a good book hasn't helped.

So, tonight we had comfort food. Spaghetti and home made meatballs. The meatballs are superlative (he said modestly); significant ingredients include extra bread crumbs, for softness, and lots of parmesan cheese, for tang. Half of the batch was reserved for future use, and we had six of the remainder, simmered in and served in Newman's Marinara (excellent stuff). And we even had some wine.


Saturday, November 06, 2004

Economic Wizardry

I just had an odd thought. Gee, how unusual.

According to a news article, we can expect some interest rate hikes as a result of the surprisingly strong job market. My first thought was, okay, that makes sense. But then I thought 'the economy has two components -- a base component that is what it actually produced and consumed, and a flexible component that adds some or a lot to it, as a result of expectations.

Say the economy was expected to produce $100 of goods, but it actually produced $120. This might lead the Fed to say that interest rates, which used to be, say, 1%, are now going to get bumped to 1.1%, to act as a brake. So interest earnings that would have been, say, $1.00 (100 * 0.o1) will now be $1.32 (120 * 0.011) -- and people will put the two together and say 'Hey, things are good - the level of the economy used to be $101, now its $121.32 -- production went up $20.32!' When in fact, it only went up $20 -- the rest is interest, ie, funny money that you can't make forecasts on, because interest levels can be changed at any time.'

So, if you're trying to gauge how the economy is doing, do you take that funny money into account, or not?


I work for a company that maintains large mainframes. We make lots of changes to them on a weekly basis. Over the last year or so, the number of problems we've had has gone down substantially. Usually, those problems have come out of nowhere, and we couldn't have anticipated them. Sometimes, we could have, had we known the right question to ask, but we didn't because you don't ask the question until the problem has occurred. I suppose we could have a list of every possible question - - but the list would grow weekly, and pretty quickly we'd be doing nothing for the first three days of the week but running the questions.

So now the people we work for have noticed this reduction, and they're asking: what'd we do to improve?

What they want to hear is that we decisively analyzed our processes, identified and isolated key elements which were prone to failure, and installed redundant and failover components such that failure in the primary component did not compromise the integrity of the system. They want the equivilent of Evidence-Based Medicine.

The truthful answer is, sometimes you're lucky, and sometimes you're not. We try, and we're experienced, but lately, we've just been lucky.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Making Friends

I was thinking about the whole idea of making friends, this evening. Not exactly sure what brought it up -- I was keying in some stuff for work, and found myself musing about this blog, and the couple of people that I've corresponded with, briefly, as a result.

You send your child out (Go out and play) and you tell them to 'make friends'. And they do, with an effortless style that only the most self-assured of us can do, once we pass our twenties. They have fights and spats, and they announce that 'I don't like Zoe any more', who was her best friend last week. You nod seriously, while thinking 'kid stuff'. But most of the time, they just do it - they just go out and meet people, make friends.

I've never been much good at that. I hear of people who still keep in touch with people they knew in high school, who are members of organizations, who are not spooked by the idea of getting to know new people, and I wonder: how do they do that? Its not that I stay at home, and hide in the closet. And its not that I am spooked by the idea of talking to people I don't know: I delight when the opportunity comes to talk to large groups, because it's something I'm good at.

But making friends -- one on one -- well, as Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott said in quite another context -- that's hard.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Me and Lois Lane

In one of the Superman movies, three criminals escape from the Phantom Zone and make life generally uncomfortable for Superman and anyone within about five miles of him. One of the subplots is that Lois learns his secret identity; at the end of the flick, he mesmerizes her, so that she forgets it, and, as a side effect, all of the devastation that's been visited on Metropolis, a city that probably has a standing designation as a federal disaster area. Coming to, she looks around the newsroom and cheerily asks 'So, what's new with the world?' And reaps a harvest of stares.

Now that the election is over, I feel some identification with that. Driving in to work this morning, I caught a brief article about Arafat's condition, and thought "Who?" And then it came back. Oh, yeah, Arafat, Palestinian, got it. Its as if while the campaign was going on, I swapped completely out of this world and into one where it really mattered that I keep up to date on what was going on in the political zone, have opinions on troop deployments and gay marriage and transportation funding. And then, when the bubble burst, here I was again. Life slowed down to sublight speed, and the most important thing was whether we remembered to get milk, whether I had sent out that email I meant to send, and, oh yeah, I really should call my periodontist. Major political schemes have no being in that world -- they simply don't exist; they're completely phase-shifted out of sight. Life is quieter now. And that's not a bad thing.

Though every so often I find myself thinking "There's something about Clark Kent...and Superman...right on the tip of my tongue..."

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Thinking about that Map

This evening, flipping through channels -- pressing harder on the remote when the channel seemed to have anything about the election -- I stopped and went back to one channel. It was the Weather Channel. I turned to my wife and said 'Isn't it nice to see a map that doesn't have blues, reds, and notes about electoral votes?'

The image of that last map put up with CNN sticks with me. And though I desperately wanted Kerry to win -- my wife said this evening that I seemed to be furious at Kerry, and I was, for most of the day -- I have to reluctantly admit one thing. If Kerry had won Ohio, and therefore the election, resulting in a map that was blue along both coastlines, dipping down across Pennsylvania and into Ohio, then up, and left the other 60% of the states red -- I would have thought that there was something wrong with the map. Because regardless of population centers, it doesn't seem right for someone to get to be President when they haven't won in a majority of the states.

That could be my simplistic view of life, burning me again. Because it could be that, guess what, nobody wins a majority of the states -- more accurately, nobody wins because they won a majority of the states. They win because a majority of the people voted for them, regardless of where those people reside. Just happens that the population density is greater near the water.

Yet for some reason, the idea of winning without winning a majority of the states -- that bothers me.

That Hurts.

It really does. I haven't cared so much about an election since....well, I think I was in high school, and not actually sure what an election was.... When Kerry conceded, I was so incredibly pissed as not to be believed. Not because he'd conceded -- that made sense -- but because something I really wanted had just died. I just listened to part of his speech to the troops, but I had to stop listening, because I was still furious.... furious about how it turned out, furious about the fact that we'll have that smug SOB and his cronies around for another four years.

Inside of me, something is saying okay, okay, but look -- you don't like it, but that political map is telling you something. That amendments against gay marriage passed in multiple states is telling you something. That more conservative people are getting elected is telling you something. That people on both sides stole lawn signs is telling you something. And if I have any intelligence at all, I have to listen, and to learn from it.

I heard someone say that now the Democrats will form a circular firing squad. Maybe thats true. And maybe now I understand why people get crazy and join ultra leaning groups. I don't think -- I don't think -- I'll do that. But I do know this. I'm going to start paying more attention to politics.

But not this weekend. I won't be reading the news sections of the Sunday papers. Because it'll still hurt too much.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Well, this is scary....

At 9:45 EST, Bush has 170 Electoral Votes, and Kerry has 112. Which means that Bush is about 63% of the way there, and Kerry is about 41% of the way there.

Put another way, if this keeps up, I won't have to worry about tamping down the Democratic urge to be supercilious.

Okay, there are no results from Florida, Pennsylvania, or Ohio yet, but I assume PA will go for Kerry, and Florida for Bush, so thats not terrific news.....

(sigh) Four. More. Years?

Monday, November 01, 2004

If I Get Much, Much Better....

at photography, maybe someday I'll be half as good as these guys.


Light Thoughts

Not knowing all that much about physics, I can be easily impressed by demonstrations of facility there. In The Cuckoo's Egg, by Clifford Stoll, a graduate student in physics, he said that for his (doctoral?) examination, he was asked why the sky is blue, which he answered effortlessly. He was then asked to explain the concepts of diffraction and diffusion, which he'd used in the first explanation. And then he was asked to speak about the effects of diffraction on the molecular level ... you get the idea. I don't think nearly that abtrusely, but this morning, as I was sitting at the breakfast table, I was looking at the light playing on the barn across the field from us. It was a very soft, gentle light, almost a Vermeer quality, and I mused a bit about what causes that quality of light. As far as I could go, though, was 'dust in the air. Or something like that.' No challenge to Clifford from me.

This may be my morning for confusion. Part of it was my dream, last night, wherein I was back in college, trying desperately to make my way through a milling crowd, all of whom seemed to know where their classes were on this first day. I didn't have a clue. I went through the cafeteria line twice, on the chance that it was posted there. I circled the big table that had just tons of leaflets, pamphlets, books, computer printouts, newspapers scattered across it. I went up to the information desk, with no help. I even went outside of the building, into the crisp fall air, and thought to call the main office, asking them where the class information was, only to hear 'Its in the lobby. Where you were.' I never did find out.

Not to read too much into it, but I wonder how much that dream reflected my political thoughts of late. I suppose I ought to be glad that if I was dreaming of school, it was at least college -- if it had been high school, there would likely have been slogans on the walls like Don't WORRY, Vote for KERRY, or Don't be a TUSH - Don't Vote for BUSH. High school slogans are not notable for their elegance of expression. I recall that one poster, trying to get people to come out to be in several plays that the drama folks were doing, said in large letters HEROIN, and then in small letters 'or hero, you should come to the drama department'. That one didn't go over too well with the faculty.

Maybe thats what my subconcious is telling me. We need some adults to be in charge.