Monday, January 31, 2005

The Unbearable Swiftness of Being

Sometimes at the end of the day, I think: what the hell did I do today?

Usually, its not a philosophical question -- we use time sheets at my company, and while they're never 100% accurate, I try to make them conform at least generally to what I actually did do that day. I sometimes think that I should resort to an artifice -- like, noting every fifteen minutes what I'm doing -- but there are two problems with that. One, its likely that I would note that its time for an entry and realize its been 45 minutes since the last one, and where has the time gone? And the other, that there are no time entry categories for 'staring into space'. Unless you code it as 'meetings', which is roughly the same thing.

This past weekend was a good example. I can only remember two things -- going to the grocery store and spending a huge amount of money, and starting taxes on Sunday afternoon. We use TurboTax on the web, and while its not painless, they do a pretty good job of hints and prompts. Oh, wait, and I shuttled my daughter to a friend's house, and then all of them back to our house. And I bought something at Home Depot, and picked up bedding for the guinea pig. And something at Staples. And I baked chocolate chip cookies.

Thats two days, isn't it?

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Republicans and Democrats

I'm a registered Republican....but most of the time, I vote Democratic, because I like the way they think more than I like the way that Republicans think.

Which is not to say that I dislike the way Republicans think. Sometimes, I like it very much indeed. I like the concept of privatized Social Security; the reason I am opposed to it at the moment is not because I dislike the idea, but because I distrust the people in power, those who would implement it. I doubt they've given a lot of thought to 'what do we do if it doesn't work, how will we protect those who need it?' I think that they are sufficiently distant from me that they honestly don't care what happens to me, and people like me, if their plan goes awry -- they'll just shrug and say that the plan was theoretically sound, and hey, at least big business owners weren't affected.

Democrats are not a lot better. I was on a mailing list from, and told them to drop me, because in two months I never once saw a mailing which spoke in any way about their plans, their desires. It was always 'we have to stop the Republicans, we have to stop Bush.' Okay, I agree. How? Show me that you're thinking, show me that you're evolving. An article in today's paper says that Democrats are viewing stopping the privatization of Social Security as a make or break issue, and that if successful they will challenge the idea of capping medical malpractice awards. As it happens, I like the idea of capping malpractice awards -- not totally fond of the idea, but I think its worth doing just because of what malpractice fees are doing to the decent doctors -- but either way, I'm dismayed by the Democratic rhetoric. Is that the limit of their ambition, insight, thoughtfulness? I thought that style of 'activity' went out with Gingrich. Though, come to think of it, he is around again, isn't he?

I saw something in the Sunday paper which distressed me more than I would have suspected that it would, and which got me fuming about Bush and co, again. A fellow wrote an article in the Washington Post titled "Don't Mind Me. I'm Just Doing My Job", wherein he describes what it was like to have a minder follow him around while he was interviewing people at one of the inaugural parties. The minders, he says, did not attempt to muzzle or control him, and except for one woman whose attitude seemed permanently set to Vitriolic, they were pleasant, even friendly. But they hovered next to him, mute reminders to the interviewed that everything they said, suggested, insinuated could and might well be reported back to Big Brother -- or worse yet, to Dick Cheney.

I find that kind of mind control to be entirely consistent with the Bush style, which was, you may recall, the campaign that required loyalty oaths before allowing people into their campaign rallies, and its entirely inconsistent with a free society. It confirms me in my drive to oust the Republicans.

Because that kind of action is just plain wrong.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Chilly Thoughts

Last night, we did something dumb. It didn't seem dumb as we thought of it, but in retrospect, it was. What we did was to rent The Day After Tomorrow, take it home, and watch it.

In case you don't recall, TDAT is a film about the extremely rapid onset of a new Ice Age over the northern hemisphere, the result of callous disregard for the effects of global warming. Dick Cheney (actually, a virtual clone) plays a nice supporting role as the hard-nosed politician who has no use for these fanciful notions -- he's more interested in handling the real-world problems that have cropped up, including torrential rains and a suite of tornadoes that have devastated Los Angeles. Its only later, as the thirty-foot-deep flood waters are surging through the canyons of New York City, and the cataclysmic drop in temperatures is turning all that water into ice and snow, that he begins to think again. Of course, by then, it's far too late.

We watched this movie, as I said, last night, when the temperature outside was in the mid-teens. As the movie went on, the room got chillier -- and I could not have told you if it was an actual temperature drop or the effect of seeing all that snow and icy wilderness on the screen. But whatever it was, I had bad dreams during the night -- dreams in which frost and cold played a major part. Eventually, I got up, unable to sleep, and decided to read some blogs, where I found an interesting article on the Institute for the Future's site about something they called Liquid Information. It led to a demo on the CNN site, where, among other things, I found this.

And then I couldn't sleep at all.

What's in YOUR Wallet?

This New York Times article, about a retirement system strikingly similar to the one that Bush is pushing, says some scary things:

Nearly 25 years ago, Chile embarked on a sweeping experiment that has since been emulated, in one way or another, in a score of other countries. Rather than finance pensions through a system to which workers, employers and the government all contributed, millions of people began to pay 10 percent of their salaries to private investment accounts that they controlled.Under the Chilean program - which President Bush has cited as a model for his plans to overhaul Social Security - the promise was that such investments, by helping to spur economic growth and generating higher returns, would deliver monthly pension benefits larger than what the traditional system could offer.

But now that the first generation of workers to depend on the new system is beginning to retire, Chileans are finding that it is falling far short of what was originally advertised under the authoritarian government of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Now, to be fair (and its one of the debilitating characteristics of liberals that we do try to be fair), the article says that the problems that Chile is experiencing have two major sources, of which one is likely here, and one is not. The article even makes the point that the investment portion of the equation is actually doing quite well -- better than expected, in fact.

And the problems?

  • Exorbitant handling fees on the part of the managers of these private funds, coupled with a strange reluctance to clearly state what those fees might be.

  • A large percentage of the working population paid nothing, or very little, into the fund, and so they get very little back. The government, as guarantor of last resort, has to give them supplemental payments that were not anticipated in the original plan.

I can see certain politicians saying that 'Fees are just a normal part of doing business, and the government has no right to interfere with them; as for the other, well, they should have paid in more -- its their fault!'

Tread cautiously, and keep a filled mattress, folks.

Friday, January 28, 2005

House Plans

Over the last few weeks, we've been adding details to what we'd like to have in a retirement home. This is a grand wish list -- we don't expect to get all of it, but we'd like to get most of it. At some point in the next year or so, when (presumably) the flood of thoughts has dried, or slowed to a trickle, we'll start weighting them, so that the things we truly want are at the top of the list. Of course, we will have surprises, as we find that things we thought were trivial are actually important to us.

For example, a tray ceiling. We had one put into the breakfast nook when that was built, and we find to our surprise that we really like the touch of elegance that it added to the kitchen. I'm not one who usually uses phrases like that, but it seems appropriate here. The ceiling is a symmetrical octagonal drop down, with a very nice yet simple chandelier. We did not have lights put inside the tray, as we thought it would be awkward to have to change the lights, and we're generally comfortable with that idea still. In fact, a relative had a octagonal tray put in her ceiling -- its not symmetrical, though -- and seeing how lights can show up any imperfection in the ceiling, we're glad we did it this way.

And the dining room, with its hardwood floor and paneled wainscoting, is pretty nice, too. We've tentatively decided that we won't have both the nook and the dining room, so we're going to have to judge those carefully. Its entirely possible that we won't build, either, which means we have to think about what can be realistically retrofitted onto an existing house. We're not interested in essentially gutting an existing house!

But the process of thinking about it is fun.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Nipping NPR

Sometimes I understand why people don't like NPR.

Usually I like them quite a lot, when they do detailed pieces about things that interest me, or when the local NPR plays classical music. Actually, the NPR in Philadelphia -- they've got a better selection than the local folks.

But sometimes I don't like them at all. As yesterday, when they did a piece about the Marine helicopter that crashed in Iraq, and went on at some length about how old these helicopters were, how difficult to maintain, how comparatively fragile.

As they moved from reporting the news to interpreting it, I thought: And if the Marines had bought new helicopters, and used them, would I now be listening to an article about the waste inherent in military procurement when you have these perfectly suitable, if aging, helicopters available for use?


Monday, January 24, 2005

The American Scholar

I usually enjoy reading American Scholar magazine. I don't always understand it, mind you, as it is written and edited by some very bright people, indeed, but when I do understand it, I usually find that the material is interesting, literate, occasionally funny, and always something that I'm not likely to find anywhere else.

The article that I'm reading now, What the Inaugural Addresses Say About America, from the current issue, is a good example. It's by a fellow who has accomplished the prodigious feat of reading every word in every Inaugural Addresss, and has given a great deal of thought to their content. Drawing on that effort, he distills Inaugural Addresses to the following common themes:

  1. I am not worthy of this great honor.
  2. But I congratulate the people that they elected me.
  3. Now we must all come together, even those of us who really hate each other.
  4. I love the Constitution, the Union, and George Washington.
  5. I will work against bad threats.
  6. I will work for good things.
  7. We must avoid entangling alliances.
  8. America's strength = democracy.
  9. Democracy's strength = America.
  10. Thanks, God.

Just think of all the presidential speechwriters who could have knocked off work early, given that list!

He also mentions where the tradition of the inaugural parade comes from (it was a failed getaway), why there is a presidential reviewing stand (thank Lincoln), and asks this poignant question about inaugural addresses: ' Is there a single person, including the president, who can quote even a sentence from George W. Bush's 2001 inaugural? (In fact) can anyone quote a sentence uttered since "Ask not what your country can do for you?" '

Um.... no.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Sociable Security

Okay, that's not really the name. But here's some numbers, from today's Washington Post:

2018 - The year that Social Security payments will exceed the system's annual tax receipts, according to the middle of three SSA forecasts. The deficit would be made up by drawing down on the Social Security trust fund.

73 - Without changes, the percentage of promised benefits that that Social Security would be able to pay once the trust fund is empty in 2042. (Funds would come from ongoing tax receipts.)

69 - Without changes, the percentage of projected benefits that Social Security would be able to pay in 2078.

Have to admit, I don't know what they mean by 'promised benefits' or 'projected benefits' (already committed? expected to be asked for?) . But I thought these were interesting numbers, nonetheless.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Before and After Tsunami Photographs

Amazing photographs, at

Newt and the Democrats

From The Economist's Lexington column, about Newt Gingrich, and why he is being viewed with some interest by Democratic leadership:

"The biggest problem with the current Democratic leadership is not that it has lost the will to fight but that it has lost the power to think. When was the last intellectually innovative idea you heard from Nancy Pelosi, the current minority leader, or, for that matter, from Dick Gephardt, her predecessor? ....(T)he Democrats are in danger of turning into that most pathetic of all political organizations - a minority party that devotes all its energies to the blind defense of the status quo. By all means let the Democrats learn from Newt the fighter; but if they want to recapture power they need to learn from Newt the thinker, too."


I may grow older, but I'll never grow up

Proof of which is my attitude to the snow which is just arriving now, with an expected accumulation of six to ten inches. In our area, that translates out to something like four inches, virtually guaranteed.

I turned to my wife this morning and said in a tone of mock irritation that this snow was badly timed -- it should have come on Monday, so that I could take the day off. And then, recalling that I usually work from home on Monday, I changed that to 'should have arrived on Tuesday'. Having snow on Saturday, I observed, was the worst possible day -- it'll all be cleared by Monday morning, and there will be no delays, to speak of, at all. And no school delays, either, notes my daughter, to which I nod, commiserating.

I may grow older.....

Friday, January 21, 2005

Chaos Alley

It's going to be a chaotic weekend.

Saturday morning, my wife gets up at 4 to dial into a system upgrade.
Saturday morning, my daughter goes on a field trip, maybe.
Saturday morning, snow starts. Predicted accum, 6-10 inches.
Saturday afternoon, I dial into a system upgrade.
Sunday morning, I get up at 6 to dial into a system upgrade.
Sunday morning, my wife starts a twenty-four hour on-call.

And thoughts of Boston and terrorists keep drifting through my mind.

Oh, boy.

The Morning After

I have good news. As of today, we have less than four years left for George.

I was going to say 'George and company', but of course if the Democratic Party can't get energized and focused, the 'and company' will still be around after George departs for Crawford. I haven't been giving this a lot of thought, but when an article about 'who really won the election' or 'what were the real issues exposed by the vote' comes along, I read it, at least far enough to see if its fatuous nonsense or a reasonable article.

You can always tell the first type: they seem to be saying that while technically Bush won, clearly the voting patterns show that.... (you can finish that sentence). The other type of article might disagree with others of the same type regarding the origins of the win (some will say that it truly was a family and morality election, others will say that that interpretation is an artifact of how questions were asked) but it won't try to change reality. Bush won. Deal with it. So I read these things, putting the pieces together, and try to come in my mind to an understanding of what actually motivated the people who made the result that we're living with now.

One thing seems pretty clear. The people who voted for Bush in the small towns and byways of America weren't always yokels, not even usually. They were people who felt that he represented the better choice, either because he truly did reflect their values and aspirations, and he addressed their fears, or simply because he came to their state and spoke to them, and Kerry did not. Some of them are people I could like.

In multiple cases, Kerry's message didn't get through, or was distorted. Of course, both sides had their message distorted, or got it through, and it helped some and hindered some. It depends, a little, on what point you're trying to make.

Less than four years...Time to start thinking about what points the Democratic Party wants to make.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Quite the Day

This has been an interesting day.

I read in CNN where there is an alert happening in Boston because of fears that six people bringing a nuclear device into the city. Doesn't 'nuclear device' sound neat and sanitary? Like when we say IED (Improvised Explosive Device), because Roadside Bomb doesn't sound appropriately cool, appropriately professional. Sometimes I think that when we encapsulate the horror of something like that by making up these coy phrases, we lose something crucial, some essential in our understanding of the world. In making it something we can think about, we make it something that doesn't scare us at a visceral level. But it should.

Then I read that there are no-kidding pirates attacking freighters in mid-ocean, with a one hundred thousand dollar bounty for letting the ship leave. How long before freighters start emulating the old merchant clippers and begin to carry heavy armament?

Today is the inaugural. Freezing cold. Why can't they do this indoors? I know that all those folks want to celebrate their victory (excuse me: Par-TAY!), and its perfectly reasonable that they like the idea of gathering for that purpose, but in the cold? And the snow? Where's the sense in that?

And then there's Darth Tater.

At least my morning meter read was decent. Its been on the bad side, last couple of days, the result of some indulgence on my part, and I've been trying hard to get it back to the golden plateau. The top of which is, apparently, a lot narrower than I thought, with a crumbly ridge, and a slippery, fast ride down to the bottom.

Also, I learned today how IM works (but not how to make Lotus SameTime do the magic I want), and also where the phrase 'beyond the pale' came from. Plus, we got some financial statements in the mail with the year-end totals, and to our flabbergasted astonishment, we earned a significant amount on an account that we'd given up on as ever earning anything.

So, overall -- a good day. Kinda.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Who Deserves the Credit?

.One man deserves the credit.....
One man deserves the blame....
And Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky was his name !

Thank you, Tom Lehrer.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Supreme Court Term Limits

There was an interesting article in the Sunday paper about a proposal to effectively limit the terms of Supreme Court Justices, who are appointed for life, as outlined in the Constitution.

According to the article, the average tenure in the Court was about fifteen years, up until fairly recently. Now, the average tenure is about twenty-five years. Some people feel that this represents a great deal of drag on the relevance of the Court to current political opinion. Others feel that this isn't necessarily a bad thing, as the Court has to be able to, and willing to, take actions which are not always in tune with current thought.

But how to get around that Constitutional commandment? One concept is to appoint the Justices to the Federal judiciary for life, and to limit their presence on the court to eighteen years. After that point, the Justice would be considered a Senior Justice, available for consultation and for presiding on other Federal courts, but would no longer participate in the daily actions of the Supreme Court.

I think it makes a great deal of sense.

Monday, January 17, 2005

IM --> Pager ?

One of the many things I don't know is, how does Instant Messaging actually work.

Normally, I don't care, because I don't use it that much (though this article, Adoption of Instant Messaging in a Knowledge Worker Organisation, was kind of interesting, and agrees with the little bit I've read on the topic). But lately I've found myself thinking that it would be nice if I could get Lotus Sametime, which is the IM tool that my company, The Biggest Computer Company In The World, uses, to issue pages to me.

The reason is, sometimes when I am working from home, I will wander off into another room, for whatever reason, and when the ST pops up a screen, I won't always hear the chime. As ST is usually taken as an indicator of whether you truly are there, and as there is occasionally a suspicion that people working from home are actually downstairs watching the tube, taking a nap, or painting the shutters, I like to respond to it quickly. I always feel a little nettled when I come back into the room and the screen is up for, who knows how long. If ST would issue a page when its been up for, say, thirty seconds without a response, that would be nice.

ST has a companion tool called NotesBuddy that works with Lotus Notes, and which can, in its bag of tricks, be used to page you with new emails. Since I don't personally have to work out the linkage, its easy for me to think well, heck, how hard can it be to make SameTime, which after all comes from the very same company as Notes, talk to NotesBuddy (those who like groaner names can see this one coming: the new product could be called SameBuddy)?

Okay, probably not that easy. But still....
Someone starts a session to my ST client, which pops up a screen and starts a timer.
Thirty seconds later the timer pops. Gee, no response in thirty seconds.
Issues the page with the text message "Hey, get back to the screen!" and maybe even sends a message back to the original sender "NO RESPONSE; PAGING NOW"

How hard can that be? Huh?

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Recording Information

I was just reading an article in the Sunday New York Times about Newt Gingrich and his activities in support of health care reform (if you'd told me a year ago that I would be doing that, I'd have looked seriously askance at you), and I thought "Gee, I'd like to make some notes about this article." Because thats the thing -- I read the article, I remember a couple of key points and thats it. But how to do it, given that I'm certainly not going to fire up the laptop or the PC to do it, handwriting is so old school (nothing to do with the fact that my handwriting is virtually illegible at speed, and sometimes less than that).

So I thought Well, what I need is a headset with noise-cancelling mike that feeds into a high quality portable tape recorder (or something with a mini-hard drive); then that gets uploaded into the PC and read by a speech recognition program to produce text output that I later read through for clarity. Oh, and an artificial intelligence system to organize, classify, and correllate the information. Yeah, that's the ticket.

Take care of it.

Well, except for the AI part, that was easy.

Organizational Effort

My company, The Biggest Darn Computer Company In The World, is trying to implement a standard that has to do with security, one of the great icons of our current world. They are tying themselves in knots trying to keep everyone involved, aware, on board, insert-favorite-buzzword-here. I like to remind them that 'coordination breeds contempt', and they usually laugh, but weakly, as replying "No shit" is considered to be rude.

I would be fascinated to know if anyone has done a readable study of organizational complexity vis a vis speed of execution of something like this. But as I don't know any social scientists, I guess I'll have to wait till some bright young person writes about it in an accessible magazine, like the Times Sunday Magazine or similar. Too bad.

Apple Pie and Congress

Apple pie:
This morning, my daughter and I made an apple pie. She pared most of the apples, I sliced them, we both fed the slices into the food processor, she mixed the slices with the rest of the ingredients, I unrolled the two pre-made circles of dough, she put down the bottom circle, scooped in the mixture, put down the top circle, melded the edges, cut the slits, I set up the oven and slid it in. Can't wait.

"Why stir up a political hornet's next...when there's no urgency? When does the program go belly-up? 2042. I will be dead by then." Representative Bob Simmons (D-Conn)

...and if pro is the opposite of con, what's the opposite of progress?

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Power Needs

Well, it looks like possibly I'm going to need another plug. And possibly an uninterruptible power supply. I just learned about NAS -- Network Attached Storage. NAS lets you have storage that is not tied to a single PC, but rather accessible from any PC in the network. In our case, we have the one home PC (despite minor agitation from the offspring, we still have just the one), plus each of us has a take-home lap top PC. Both laptops have wireless capability, and can talk to the Netgear router, as does the home PC and the cable modem. That's our little network.

As I understand it, the NAS box (whatever one we get, if and when) plugs into the router, and thusly becomes accessible from any PC. Our printer, which is currently hard-plugged into the home PC, and not accessible from the laptops (the files on the home pc aren't, either, despite the assurances of my network guy at work that it's really easy to do), can plug into the NAS device, and in theory become accessible to the laptops, while still being accessible to the home PC.

But the big deal is that the NAS box can give a huge amount of storage (or what counts as huge now; check again in a year). The smallest box I saw was 160 gigabytes; the largest was 1.2 terabytes. They physically range from the size of four hardcover books to about twice that. And with stuff on the NAS box rather than the individual PCs, it would be immediately accessible if we swapped to a new PC. No data swapping. (Probably just data files, though. I don't think that I want to contemplate what it would take to make Windows accept remote executable files. I'm sure its possible, I just don't want to contemplate what it would take to make it work.)

Downsides? Oh, sure, you betcha. For one, if you have something fail on the NAS box, then hey presto, you just lost a lot of storage. Not sure if they come with internally redundant backup. For another, they're not cheap -- by my standards, anyway-- starting at around $500. And of course, there's The Power Question. I wasn't kidding about the UPS concept. We already have the router, cable modem, speakers, two printers, and phone modem plugged into the surge protector. I think there is one slot left.

But it's sexy!

Friday, January 14, 2005

Drug Recommendation

I don't normally make drug recommendations. My opinion is just mine, and not worth a hill of beans when it comes to comparisons with other people's experiences. But I've come across one that is really good at doing what it's supposed to do.

It's called Lantus, and it's a long-acting insulin.

It took me taking it for a month before I starting seeing benefit, but now I'm on day four of acceptable blood sugar readings in the morning. For me, this is virtually unprecedented. I don't know if it will continue. I don't know if Lantus will be shown to have unacceptable side-effects. But I do know this: for me, so far, it works.

I don't work for the company that makes it, and I didn't get anything for this recommendation.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Product 19

About two years ago, when I started this blog, I mentioned a book, '19', which I had greatly enjoyed. This past week, I was delighted to receive an email from the author's wife, mentioning that she had seen the writeup and wanted me to know that the author, Roger Hall, was, at 85, still alert, active, and visiting book shows. I asked if he would mind autographing my copy of 19 -- and he graciously agreed. It's going off in the mail to him this weekend.

Before sending it, off, though, I spent a little bit of time last night leafing through it again, picking out some of the scenes and phrases that I had really enjoyed. The author has an eye for detail, and obviously enjoys well-turned phrases, scattering them throughout with grace and style. The chief character is thoughtful, wry, and funny; his chief is an alert, incisive veteran of OSS who resides in an elegant manor (and manner); his companions are smart and interesting people who you'd like to know. Even the bad guy is nicely sculpted.

Are there downsides? A couple. The book, set in the sixties, can be dated at times: people avoid eavesdropping by turning away from the window, or sitting in the corner; the agent admiringly refers to his boss's new suit as 'a wild set of threads'; the main antagonist disguises himself in Ashanti costume and wears a piece of bone to offset his Afro; the lissome girl secretary wears micro-minis to work. Mere details that don't detract from the delightful romp.

19 is an elegant treat, and a lot of fun.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Google and Firearms

I was just looking over an article about Google Hacking, to which I was led by an article on SiteDigger 2.0. SiteDigger is intended to allow companies to more easily find sensitive material about them on the web, so that they can control it. Google Hacking is intended to do the same thing, though (possibly) for less noble purposes.

It occurs to me that since this wouldn't be possible -- or as possible -- without Google, this might imply that Google has a moral responsibility to control how its product is used.

If it does, would this logic follow through with guns?


This deal with Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston has gotten enough play that even I've noticed it -- and I can go for years without knowing who the current hot items are. So here's my take.

They were married for, what, seven years?

They're more well known by a factor of, what, ten times that of a normal person?

So, doesn't that equate to being effectively married for seventy years without muss or fuss?

What's so amazing shouldn't be that they split up -- it should be that they lasted that long under the glaring spotlight of gasping columnists and obsessed fan junkies.

Mathematically speaking, anyway.

Monday, January 10, 2005


Quite some time ago -- on the order of decades ago -- I read an article on the question of foreign relations and foreign aid. The basic question was, why does the United States offer foreign aid? It boiled down, as I recall, to three reasons:

  1. Bribery of one sort or another
  2. Quid pro quo
  3. General niceness
There was an article in the New York Times yesterday where the question was raised again. Only, in keeping with how things are these days, it was edgier. The question was, is the outpouring of United States aid to tsunami victims going to have any effect on the way that this country is perceived?

The general take was, no. One person said that of course the United States would give lots of aid; people expect that, people are used to that, but of course no reasonable person would expect that people who are opposed to us now would alter their opinions simply because we gave aid. That would be insulting to them.

Its fair that they not change their opinions. Narrowminded, but fair. They didn't ask us to give the money. "We can't be bought", and all that.

But that they expect that we will, of course, give money -- and not just money, but lots of money -- that isn't fair. They have no right to expect that, or indeed anything at all. The only people who can have that expectation of us is ourselves.

Fortunately for much of the world, and unlike much of the world, we do see ourselves as having the responsibility to help when we can. Even when we're slimed, even when our people are being killed, we do. We're not noble (though some of us certainly are), we're not perfect (though some of us come damn close), but we do. We help.

I like that.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Economic Foolery

We were talking at breakfast this morning about this, that, and the other, and got onto the subject of the proposal to reduce the amount of increases to Social Security through the mechanism of tying the increases to inflation rather than to salary. I had just mentioned that though I recognize the need for action, I didn't like the method, when it abruptly occurred to me that these are politicians proposing this. That means that the chances of them actually meaning exactly what they said is fairly slim. They might well be doing it to stake out an extreme position, so that when they come up with their actual plan, it'll sound moderate by comparison.

Somehow, realizing this doesn't make me feel better.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Remote Thought

How about a memory button on a TV remote, so that as you flick through channels, you can tag/untag likely viewing candidates. When you're done, you can cycle just through them, not all twelve zillion channels.

Just my little contribution to the couch potato brigade.....

Friday, January 07, 2005

Ribboning the Wave

There are a lot of cars with wrapped-ribbon magnetic things showing support for various concepts, mostly having to do with the war in Iraq, but also other things ranging from breast cancer eradication to funding for homeless shelters (there's an amazing list of causes and associated 'awareness jewelry' here). ..Similarly, people in Hollywood like to wear ribbons to public gatherings for roughly the same reason. So --

How long till a ribbon comes out that looks vaguely like a wave , to be sported by people who've donated to tsunami relief?

Thursday, January 06, 2005


Today was a little better than the other day.

I got the yearly evaluation, and went up a quintile, which was good. It doesn't mean I got a lot better, but it was gratifying, nonetheless, especially as it makes more likely the career move that I've wanted. Not guaranteed, but not out of the question.

I started on that project that the customer wanted, and found it to be rather snarly, as they didn't really know what they wanted, just that they wanted what they had before, only newer. Yet I was pleased that I came up with a way to do it, and that when I hit roadblocks, even the guy who had done it for them for years was stumped. Again, gratifying.

I think what I could use right now is A Nice Cup of Tea -- what we referred to for a while, upon our return from London, as American Tea (ie, strong, but not road tar) -- along with one of those terrific Mrs. Fields Chocolate Covered Graham Crackers. Yum. And maybe a little bit of reading in the British Navy book. Its a little intimidating (big book), but well written.

The weather's gloomy, but I'm better.

Gamer buys $26,500 virtual land

According to an article on the BBC site, a gamer has paid actual money to purchase the rights to a virtual island -- one that is part of a multi-player computer game. According to the article, he plans to earn the money back by leasing and selling the resources on the island to virtual settlers.

I think this is fascinating. It reminds me of the joke I heard in a macroeconomics class years ago which postulated that all of the gold in the world was shipped to an island so that it could be easily protected. The next year, when someone went back to look, the island had sunk -- but the economy chugged right on. It didn't need to see the money, it just assumed it.

Obviously, there had to be effort in the creation of the virtual island, so you could say that the price paid reflects that effort and profit on it. But more than that, this says that you can earn money for things that do not exist, but which are valued by someone else.

That really tickles me. I don't know what comes next, but I'm looking forward to seeing it.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005


Today was not an overwhelmingly great day.

In no particular order, I found that my stomach rebelled at the consumption of a couple of tacos (and without anything particularly obnoxious on them!); learned that a co-worker whom I think of as 'the idiot' is going to move to a group that I've been agitating to move to; was informed that an account for whom we'd offered to provide some basic services is taking us up on it - their first request is for a custom set of files that our predecessor created -- and right now, too, please; a project which has been hanging fire for about six months is now considered urgent; and, I get to spend about two hours manually updating my ID on about 85 systems, because my employer, the Largest Computer Company In The World, hasn't seen fit to automate the process. Though we did just hold a mass conference on Improving Our Processes, how nice.

I also found myself thinking about the state of affairs in Iraq, and I learned that one proposal for 'saving' Social Security is to reduce payments. Insert bitter post-election comment here.

It is hard at times like this to be even guardedly optimistic. Not that I'm an optimistic sort, normally, but maybe -- just a little bit. Not today, though. I took advantage of the sour stomach and went home for the afternoon, sleeping for an hour on arrival, and then reading a bit about the British Navy. Tomorrow it might be icy, which translates out to Working From Home. I have to remember to be grateful for that -- I know its not all that common.

We'll see how tomorrow goes.

New Impressions

The Washington Post has changed its comics mix a bit, mostly with good results.

One of the strips shows two characters observing that it's a new year. They sit quietly for two panels, then one says 'So far, I'm not impressed'. Thats probably been true for the vast majority of New Years. We know in our hearts that there is no reason to assume anything better or worse from the world simply because a calendar has rolled over, yet somehow we always hold out that frail hope, whether it be for diets, our jobs, or the world in general. We're always hoping that next year will be better.

Here's to optimism.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Book Review

Finished The Last Ship.

Here's a tip.

Don't read a novel about nuclear holocaust and the resulting devastation unless you're planning on having very interesting dreams, including one where you're back in the Launch Control Center. Whew. Its been decades since I did that for a living, but the memories live on -- the ever present hum of the motor generator, the flickering indicator lights, the feel of the fabric on the crew chairs...And the task itself...First time I did a keyturn in a simulation, I had nightmares. Not that bad this time, but still, not fun.

Did bring me back to how we used to think about these things, though. Mutual Assured Destruction, MRV vs MIRV, Circular Error Probable, throw weights, redundancy, and all of that. And then we look at Al Qaeda and refer to those as the good old days.



Saturday, January 01, 2005


After I replied to a comment about my earlier post regarding artificial intelligence, I promptly forgot about the topic for several hours. This morning, I picked up one of the books that I'm reading -- The Last Ship -- and, wondering if one of the tools mentioned repeatedly in there, a sighting device called Big Eyes, really did exist, I did a web search, finding that yep, it sure did. Somehow, being at the PC reminded me of my search the other day regarding the IBM Piquant system, and I thought it might be fun to look to see what else might be readily available out there on the same topic. In this manner, I came to a product known as Javelin -- Justification-based Answer Validation through Language Interpretation. Its a pretty slick concept, and puts the lie -- well, partially -- to my glib statement about AI being mostly language parsing. The article cited includes this:

(P)attern-based approaches don’t represent the meaning of the patterns they use, and it is not clear whether they can be generalized for more difficult, non-factoid questions....

Practically useful question answering in non-factoid domains e.g., intelligence analysis) requires more sophisticated question decomposition, reasoning, and answer synthesis. For these hard questions, QA (Question Answering) architectures must define relationships among entities, gather information from multiple sources, and reason over the data to produce an effective answer. As QA functionality becomes more sophisticated, the set of decisions made by a system will not be captured by pipelined architectures or multi-pass constraint relaxation, but must be modeled as a step-by-step decision flow, where the set of processing steps is determined at run time for each question.

Now, I have to admit that it took me five minutes to repeatedly read that before I understood it, and even then, I'm sure I didn't get it all. But what I did get was this: systems such as Piquant could be useful for answering straightforward quetions. (Not sure about the reference to factoids, which I've always taken to mean 'stuff that could be true, could be made up, but in either case is of a trivial nature'; they seem to mean 'its true, but perhaps not all provable'. Thats my guess. ).

But when you get to the requirement to evaluate information -- not just regurgitate it -- you need the ability to dynamically establish a structure where you can meld information from multiple sources, rate it based on the perceived (detected) validity of the source, and then use it to create an answer to the question. As the methodology evolves, it could become self-modifiying so that the steps it takes to answer one question might change as the next question comes along.

My first reaction is, sure this stuff will work on any but the most constrained scale -- aka 'then a miracle occurs' -- but actually, its kind of cool. Obviously, there are some pretty bright people out there.