Monday, February 28, 2005

Money? Don't Need It, Thanks

I was just leafing through some of the web sites that I've bookmarked over the years. Why doesn't IE show the links I don't use? This site has not been visited in xxx days; Keep/Delete? Or perhaps a batch job that chugs once a month? These bookmarks have been moved to the Inactive File. And why isn't there a function to run down the remainder every so often, just checking for 4o4s? The sites pointed to by these bookmarks are invalid or no longer exist; Keep/Delete?). How hard could it be?

I digress.

I came across the bookmark for the web site for the American Medical Writers Association, a group that I'd briefly thought of joining (deterred only by not being in the medical or allied fields, and not being a professional writer). Coming to the site again, I thought again -- gee, that would be fun to do. Wish I could. I'd even do it for free, just for the pleasure of the experience.

I realized with some surprise that it was true. I would do it for free.

Realizing that you are at a point where you don't have to think seriously about money as a reason to do something is an interesting experience.

Following that up immediately with the realization that its a moot point, because no one's going to hire you just so you can do something for the fun of it is another one -- though not quite so pleasant.

I Should Have Been an Engineer

...because I think I look good in a striped cap.

I know, thats a terrible joke, and its one that actual members of the engineering discipline have been living with ever since Casey Jones rolled out of the roundhouse. Nonetheless, its true -- I think I should have been an engineer, or at least, an artist with an appreciation of engineering, because I like it when things fit together, when things can be described with diagrams and flows, and they make sense -- there isn't any interpretation, they just feel right and they work, they explain what they're meant to explain, and they do it lucidly, with a clean brevity of text. I like that.

It could be that I just have a romantic view of what it means to be an engineer, of course. I am sure that most of it is hard work. It might be work that is emotionally satisfying, but it isn't actually fun; it isn't something you can just bang together and say 'okay, thats a wrap'. To me, engineering embodies the need for adequacy and for precision: all the pieces have to be there, and they all have to fit, and they all have to work.

I'm always amazed when something thats engineered doesn't work. The Tacoma Narrows bridge. The Kansas City tea dance balconies. But even then, I like to think, capital-E engineers get together and they find out why it didn't work -- what assumption was hidden in the way that things were done that this time rose up and bit you -- and they come up with a way to make it so that it doesn't happen again -- doing so in a way that doesn't give rise to other gotchas, newly created or until-now hidden but ready to leap up from the tall grass. They fix it, and they do it right.

Thats engineering, to me.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Call Centers and Imperial CEOs

I read an article in today's Washington Post about the stress that some call center employees in India feel when it becomes glaringly obvious that they are disliked by Americans. The article also spoke of the subterfuges and lies that they employ to fend off that displeasure.

The article says that call center agents will refer to themselves with American-style names, pronounce words as Americans would do, become familiar with popular American television shows, and even pretend to live in American cities, down to having a map of the current local weather available so that they can refer convincingly to the current climate in their pretend 'home city'.

Despite this, they do get found out, and when they do, they get grief, and they get stress. It affects their emotions, and how they feel about themselves and what they do.

When I first read that, I thought 'Good - glad that they are getting some of what they are causing -- at least they are employed, which is more than the people whose jobs they stole can say." And then I realized: they didn't steal the jobs. The company that employs them, or employs the service that employs them -- that's who stole the job, spirited it offshore, and reaps the profit.

So why aren't we lambasting the callous CEOs who orchestrated this?

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Paying for Medical Services

I am not particularly insightful, but sometimes I am prescient.

A couple of years ago, I was talking in a desultory manner with my wife about health care costs, and I said to her that it seemed to me that health care had become something that many people thought they were entitled to, at low cost, for whatever they wanted to have done. It didn't matter if it was major or minor, life-threatening or life-enhancing, functional or cosmetic, some people seemed to think that their medical insurance should entitle to all of it.

It occurred to me that perhaps we ought to be thinking about reserving medical insurance for the significant events, and not for the routine things. I knew that the routine things didn't mean routine costs, especially as you go down the socioeconomic ladder, or up the size of your family -- just getting flu shots for everyone can be expensive -- but it felt to me like that was the equivilent of expecting that your auto policy would pay for having your tires rotated (surely a desirable thing to have done) or your oil changed (ditto). It would, I guessed, at a high-enough deductible, but the general scheme of things seemed to be now that some folks thought it ought to pay for it and have a low deductible, too.

Dammed if I didn't see a writeup in a medical blog (DoctorMental) mentioning just that concept. Okay, DM does it better, and thats cool. I just hope that the concept catches on. I don't care all that much if it helps doctors stay in the business of medicine (desirable, but not my life's goal), but it might help us stagger out of this health care cost quagmire.

And that would be a good thing.


The laptop arrived two days early, and I must say, its nice. Nice enough so that I won’t go into the irritation of various Microsoftisms and Dellisms, a couple of which I encountered again this evening when I went to the Dell site to ask a question. Mike, Mike, how do you do it, make all that money with such a lousy– but I said I wouldn’t go into it, and I won’t.

The laptop is nice. It’s an Inspiron 600M (I assume the name was chosen to subliminally sound like something desirable, and the number/letter to sound scientific) with Windows XP as the operating system. Its light enough so that I don’t really notice it, and though I can hear the fan running, its no where near the drone of my Thinkpad – nor near the weight, either. The keyboard has a good feeling, a little light on the touch but not objectionable. The touchpad and the two select buttons just below it are very easy to get used to, though I still prefer an external mouse. Good sized screen. A little flaky on the pop-ups, which sometimes just appear for no good reason, and refuse to go away unless you shut down the app. Strange, not crippling.

We bought an auxiliary battery with it, and were surprised to find out that it was a rather large unit that slides into the bay normally occupied by the CD/DVD drive. I don’t know if it supplies power at the same time as the regular battery, or even if it is charged – no obvious way to tell (that question was why I was casting around on the Dell site). After I sent them the email, I found a manual for the PC, buried in the materials they’d given me, but I haven’t looked yet. Time enough for that, later.

We’re running an old version of Microsoft Office. We saw no reason to buy a new bloatware tool, but we also knew that we would want the ability to look at files and documents, so this is our compromise. Its actually a copy of Microsoft Office 97 that we bought on eBay. I would say that its not one hundred percent compatible with XP – for one thing, the shortcut bar disappears every so often – but its good enough for our purposes. Installing the MS Office 97 seems to have made the OS forget what its email client was -- it won't even bring up Outlook as an default option now -- but it was easy enough to manually fix that.

Making it recognize the home network was relatively easy, though there was a goodly amount of flailing around, setting values and hoping I wasn't screwing things up in the process. I came to the conclusion some time ago that network people practice a form of guided witchcraft when they do what they do, and none of this made me change my mind. Fortunately, I had a decent hunch after about twenty minutes of 'well, let me try this' futzing around, and that was the break I needed to make it connect up. Now I can sit here and look at files on the desk PC. Thats not a big, big deal, but it is a deal, and I like being about to do it.

Sometimes XP pops up with messages and help balloons that I really don't want, and sometimes I have to just shut down what I am doing to make them go away. We'll figure it out.

We like it. We’re glad we got it.

Now, Mike -- about that site......

Friday, February 25, 2005

Buzzword Compliance

Some buzzwords from my company:

Bottom-Up Analysis: to gather identical information from multiple people and then aggregate it into an over-all number.

Interlock: to make sure that the assumptions you make and the numbers you use are agreed to by other people, to make sure that they're making the same assumptions and using the same numbers.

Tower: a group of people and their functions that are roughly all in the same area and produce the same kind of output.

Cross-tower: someone who talks to the towers and keeps them and their assumptions in synch with each other.

Gap analysis: Evaluation of the difference between what you said and assumed then versus what you say and assume now, and the reason for any differences.

Snow Day

Our daughter came into our bedroom early this morning and climbed into bed with us, which she hasn't done for quite some time. Thus it was that her face was about two inches from mine when I told her that her school was starting two hours late today, and her eyes snapped right open, while a grin of great delight popped up. She's outside now, shoveling the driveway to earn some money for a charity, while I am in here looking out at the mound of snow that's sitting on the deck railing, watching the snow ghosting off the roof of the garage, and the snow-covered evergreens in the corner of the yard, as the wind kicks up. The evergreens frame the barn and outbuildings in the field beyond, bathed this morning in a bluish light and a halo of snow. It's a pretty sight.

I was thinking about news and headlines last night. One of the Sunday papers carries an insert magazine called Parade, which usually has a page of questions about actors and what's going on with their lives. Though I'd like to think that I'm superior to all of that, the truth is that I'm not, so, to assuage my conscience, I came up with a personal rule: if I could see myself asking the question in public, then I could read the answer. That effectively lops off about half the questions, and of the remainder, about two thirds are of no interest to me -- the 'who played the third assistant detective in the old Kojak series' kind of thing.

I thought about that rule when I was writing a blog entry last night about headlines, wondering why certain items appear, or, why they appear so often. When Hunter Thompson committed suicide, I could understand why the article appeared, but not why it continued to appear over multiple days. Even given that Google was simply repeating what it detected as the most popular stories, and therefore was essentially reflecting the path of the article through secondary news outlets (its shelf life, you might say) , it seemed to me that it was tacky to keep posting the article and its clones. What's next, I'd grumble: Hunter Thompson Still Dead ? Then I applied my Parade rule. If you can't see yourself asking, don't read the article. Don't notice it at all. Funny how I need to tell myself these things.

A clump of snow just slid off one of the upper branches of an evergreen as a bird took flight. Something graceful about watching the snow cascading down. Though lately, when its chilly out, I find myself still thinking of the snow scenes in the apocalyptic movie The Day After Tomorrow, and I shiver just a bit.

A shiver of a different sort: saw an article about the Honda Accord 2005 hybrid... Nice.

We received a shipment notification from Dell that our laptop should arrive on Monday or Tuesday. Ordering the laptop -- our recognition that we had reached gridlock in our access to the PC, let alone to the Internet -- was a fairly easy decision, though, as is our wont, we had kicked the idea around for quite some time. And entering the order was simple -- even though the site is cluttered with options that aren't always comprehensible (want the Gmax 400Q or the UltraWhoop 6000?), and even though the order page goes on for two more pages than it should, to give them the chance to push all sorts of things (printers, cameras, additional software, PDAs, services) that have little, if anything, to do with computers, its still a pretty organized process whose goal is to get you to the point where you click the image to say 'Ship it, Mike'.

Changing the order is a whole different ball game. Dell may pat itself on the back for its 'award-winning customer service', but either that award is several years old or its for something like 'Best Use of Pencils'. Its not impossible to change the order -- in fact, they have a page that says it exists for that purpose -- but it takes a lot of time and effort. I won't go into the tawdry details. Suffice it to say, when you order from Dell, get it right the first time, and don't push the button until you're absolutely sure. And read every option, too: I didn't realize that the available hard drives spun at different speeds until a friend pointed it out to me. Not that that info wasn't available -- it was: two pages down into a 'Help Me Choose' option.

Dell also says that they're going to send my name to PC Magazine for a free subscription. No 'would you like us to do this' option. We're doing it -- get over it. I do truly dislike that style of institutional arrogance. Same thing with the page that says I must accept their 'terms and conditions'. What terms? You build, I give you money, you send it? Considerably more than that. Reflecting the articles on NPR and in the Washington Post, I'll bet there's something in there about binding arbitration and 'governed by the laws of the state of Texas', too.

But its coming, and that's good. So's the weekend, come to think of it.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Simple Thoughts

This is how simple I am.

Google News: Oil prices rise toward $52 on OPEC fears
Simple thought: The people who sell crude oil are not in it for their health. If they can raise prices without seriously endangering long term profits, they will. If they see a reduction in consumption, they might try to encourage more by dropping the price, but they won't be idiots about it.

Google News: Bush, Putin agree on restricting nuclear weapons
Simple thought: Neither of them is fond of the idea of waking up to find part of their country has been rendered more or less uninhabitable by use of a nuclear weapon. Both want to appear forceful and in control, and nobody's patsy.

Google News: Michael Jackson Jury Selection Wraps Up
Simple thought: That's what jury selection does.

Why are these headlines?

Sunday, February 20, 2005

The Biological Underpinnings of Bad Spelling

There's an interesting article in today's Washington Post Magazine on some informal (and some quite formal) research into the reasons why intelligent, well-educated people sometimes can't spell worth a hoot.

In a nutshell: latent dyslexia coupled with ingenious coping mechanisms which simulate the neurological capabilities that most people acquire while young. Situated in the recesses of the left occipito-temporal area of the brain, these capabilities allow them to spell well, consistently -- they recognize the word, have a feel for it, for what its variants would be. That feel is lacking in some people, leading to the inability to extrapolate likely spelling from what they know about the word in other forms, or about other, similar words. Some of these people develop coping mechanisms which, at least in the case of the writer of this article, work well enough to be indistinguishable from 'the real thing'. But when pressed to function quickly -- which, as a professional, deadline-driven, writer, he is -- sometimes those coping strategies break down. As he says in the article, an inability to spell well on demand is not the usual path to success for someone in his field.

Interesting and thought-provoking stuff.

Bowling With Girl Scouts

Actually, more along the lines of Sitting and Reading, and Trying Not to Wince When They Skip up to the Line and then Slam the Ball Down And Watch it Bounce.

My daughter's troop participated in a Service Event, which is Girl Scout Speak for multiple troops coming to one place at the same time to do the same thing. I'm not sure how many were there, though it looked to be about forty girls in all. Mostly, I sat and read the book I'd just picked up from the libe -- The Librarian, appropriately enough, though its actually a political novel (I like political novels; I've liked them since Advise and Consent, even though I was pretty sure that politicians didn't actually speak as lucidly as Drury made them speak, or have such a clear outlook for what they wanted to achieve. Come to think of it, they don't now, either. Well, the Democrats don't, anyway) -- looking up every so often when they would cheer because one of them had actually gotten the ball all the way down the lane without hitting one of the bumpers.

Ten lanes away, some serious bowlers were going at it (you can tell them, because they wear gloves and, if they could, I think they'd have laser rangefinders and methods of plotting the slope and gradient of the alley), but we (the whole roiling GS mass) were having more fun. One girl, from another troop, was just a delight to watch, because she was so serious when she actually bowled, but when she was not, she'd be dancing, singing, and mugging with an incredibly expressive face. Didn't hurt that she reminded me of a woman I know who lives in LA, not that I knew her as a child, or for that matter have even met her more than once -- I still liked this kid just a little more because of the resemblance.

It was fun.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Chocolate Bread Pudding With Spiced Cream

From Emeril's Creole Christmas, via the Food Network web site.

I made it this evening. It's easy, and quite good.

1 teaspoon unsalted butter
2 cups half and half
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
4 large eggs
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 cup Grand Marnier
8 slices day-old white bread *
* crusts removed and cut into 1/2-inch cubes

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Grease a 6-cup (9 1/4 by 5 1/4 by 2 2/4-inch) loaf pan with butter.
In a large saucepan, over medium heat, add the half and half.
When the cream comes up to a gentle boil, whisk in 1 cup of the chocolate chips, whisking constantly until the all chips have melted and are incorporated into the cream.
Remove from the heat, pour into mixer bowl, set aside.
Whisk the eggs, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla and Grand Marnier together in a large mixing bowl until very smooth.
Add the egg mixture to the cream mixture in mixer bowl. Mix well.
Add the bread, incorporate thoroughly. Let mixture sit for 30 minutes. Stir occasionally.
Pour half of the mixture into the prepared pan.
Sprinkle the top with the remaining chocolate chips.
Pour the remaining bread mixture over the chocolate chips.
Bake until the pudding is set in the center, about 55 minutes.
Let cool for 5 minutes.To serve, cut the pudding into 1-inch thick slices.
Top with the spiced cream.

1 quart heavy cream
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Beat cream with an electric mixer on high speed in a large mixing bowl for about 2 minutes.
Add the sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg and beat again until the mixture thickens and forms stiff peaks, another 1 to 2 minutes.

Designing People

The other night, I was driving out of our development when I passed a parked car. I realized once I had gone past that I had actually slowed down to look at it. This wasn't an exotic car, or one that had been tricked out, or polished within an inch of removing the paint - it was just a regular production street car, but it was one that caught the eye, made me smile. The car in question was a Mazda RX8, though there are others that project the same sense of power and urgency, too.

Once I got my mind back to driving -- and I'm really sorry about those trash cans, and that dent? It'll bang right out, I'm sure (though who'd have known that nuns could express themselves so vigorously?) -- I started wondering why I found the car attactive. After all, as a friend of mine said, all you really want is wheels , a place to sit, and a way to steer. ( He had gone through a design school prior to joining the Air Force and had an unusual view of the relationship between design and functionality. He once fascinated me with his story about the time he had a class project to design a better tampon. Turned out to be an interesting bit of engineering, once you got past the snickering and oh-so-sly comments. ) Well, not quite, a car's more than that -- a roof is nice, a windscreen to keep the bugs away is good, too -- but I agreed with the basic concept. A car is just a way to get from here to there. So what was it about this car, and others, that made it attractive, and why?

I realized that when I thought of the car, words such as 'sleek' and 'muscular' came to mind. Sleek, okay, I can sort-of accept that. Airflow, minimal drag, all of that. Though I recall being fascinated when I learned, years ago, that the Corvette Stingray, for all of its sleek appearance, wasn't particularly aerodynamic. But muscular? Why did I think that? Well, I thought, look at the fairings over the wheels -- the way they swell out -- surely that's muscular? Not really. It's just metalwork. Someone thought that it would be more attractive if they flared out like that -- would look faster, more muscular. Do I sense some circular logic here? Whats the source of this?

And then there are the cars you see on the road today with a rear spoiler, when you know that the only thing that's going to get them going fast enough to lift the front end up would be, say, a dive off the nearest cliff. Why does the lead sled have it? Because when I see a spoiler, I think Ah, this must be a fast car, to need that compensation. So even if I see the spoiler on, say, a UPS truck, I think Must be a fast UPS truck. And where does this imagery come from? How does a car go from just being wheels, a seat, and a way to steer to being an object of affection and desire?

Advertising helps. I'm meant to think If I have that, I'll be sexy. (When of course I could be tooling along in a fire-engine red Ferrari and not be confused with anything sexier than Fred Flintstone.) And repetition -- I keep seeing ads that use words like powerful, muscular, sleek, and so I learn that this is what I'm supposed to think when I see them. Just as when I read sites that talk about laptops, and they use works like 'screamingly fast 1.7123453 Ghz processor', I'm supposed to think Wow, when what I ought to think is What does that buy me? What can I do with it? But I don't. I think Wow.

But the source of the magic is the designer.

Imagine having the ability to translate amorphous design thoughts into concept sketches that can bring bare metal to surging life. Your eye lingers on the curves, caught by the shape, the style. For just a moment, you think: Gotta have that. And you shake your head -- but as you move away, you look back. The image lingers in your mind.

What a great ability that must be.

Designers - great designers - turn the mundane into the spectacular.

This elegance of style isn't limited to the automotive world, of course. I have a crystal polyhedron that was given to me as a birthday gift years ago, and I treasure it. My wife has a heavy ribbed glass nautilus shell, tinted in shades of aquamarine, that she similarly treasures. We have a polished wooden box with an opaque piece of leaded glass insert in the lid, a set of crystal salt and pepper shakers, a hand-made wooden rolling pin, silver candle holders with etched glass flutes. All are graceful, all evoke a sense of delight when we see them and touch them. Even well-written computer programs can have that elegance.

Thanks, artisans.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Orchestrating Kids

Like most parents, we want to see our child achieve in certain areas. Sometimes those areas are the result of heartfelt conviction, and sometimes they're the result of roughly formed opinion. Thus, we think it would be dandy if our child learned another language -- French would be good, as would Italian -- or learned to vigorously protect herself -- a little tae kwan do, anyone? -- or could speak confidently in front of an audience -- which is something I can do virtually without effort, and I'm surprised that not everyone can, because its so easy. Well, to me, anyway. Oh, and we want her to be able to work independently, not only 'by herself' but also 'without the support infrastructure of some massive company that could cut you loose without so much as a hearty handshake'. Not that that has happened to either of us, but it could. (You see there one of those roughly formed opinions.)

The latest product of that child improvement factory? Note Taking. I was thinking about how my own note taking skills aren't that great, and how school would have been somewhat easier if I had been able to take coherent notes instead of cryptic scribblings that occasionally made sense and occasionally were completely bereft of meaning. I don't want that to happen to her. I want her to have an edge.

To that end, while we had some time alone, the partner and I,we discussed how we might facilitiate this. Turned out that we really didn't have any ideas. One of us raised the idea that organizations such as Sylvan Learning Centers offer courses on study techniques, and while we thought those might possibly be of use, we couldn't actually believe that they really do what they say they do. Visions of brightly colored placards and slogans in place of black-and white Techniques That Work (not copyrighted, feel free to use it) came to mind. Just a tinge of 'our kid isn't in need of remedial help, she's perfectly OKAY, we just want to buff things up around the edges' also comes to mind.

We need to find someone we can ask, someone we can trust to tell us the truth, and not be pitching a service, someone who knows whats possible and whats not. I'd like to think that in the educational community around here, surely there is someone.... but then again, I was surprised to learn that the organization which runs the after school program, whose name is Learning Center, does almost no Learning; rather, they just keep the kids fairly quiet and busy playing games. They do have a 'quiet time' when kids could do homework, but they don't insist on it. And they certainly don't have any courses intended to supplement and augment what the kid gets in school. So they're out.

We need to give this some thought.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Customer Service and Beer

Which are not two phrases that you often hear together, but I did today, and I was kind of tickled by it. I'm always tickled by tales of exemplary customer service -- not the bogus ones that you see in various advertisements, but real world people doing something extraordinary.

Some friends of ours are golf fanatics. They recently moved where their golf league plays from one local golf course to another for one reason: the first course had managers who never seemed to respond to complaints, never tried to improve the facilities, never seemed to care, and the new one did. As an example, they said, when the new golf course found out that these people would be playing regularly, and would be bringing their friends along, they let it be known that they had a Links Hostess, whose job it was to drive around in a golf cart with a stocked cooler. Let us know what your group likes to drink, and when you'll be here, they said, and we'll make sure the Links Hostess has it on tap.

Customer service, and beer. What a combination.

Laptop Flipflop

Last night, I went to the Dell site to buy a laptop.... and didn't.

I admit to being a bit of a cheapskate when it comes to buying a computer. I want something that’s fast and capable of handling what I want to do (and perhaps that which I don’t do now but might reasonably expect to do in the future), but I’m not willing to pay for the Absolute Best and Fastest because I know that, like a new car dropping in value as you drive it off the lot, the AB&F won’t be the AB&F two days later. Plus, paying for enhancements that I can’t feel or see the effect of seems silly to me. Can anyone really tell the difference between a 1.6 Ghz processor and a 1.7? Does another 128K of RAM really buy anything? Technically, yes, but in the way it ‘feels’, no.

I’m also a bit of a Luddite. I don’t care for the way that the software on PCs is delivered. I think that the layout of the main menu, which appears to be ‘as we put it in’, is chaotic. It ought to have a ‘search for this app’ function, and be simple to rearrange (put all the writing tools here; put this game up top; move this stuff to the deep recesses of the menu). Additionally, I despise software that’s put on the PC in a full-configured state, but which ‘expires’, leaving you with a shell of minimal functionality, unless you pony up for the full package. (Are you listening, Dell/Sierra Imaging/Image Expert?) That isn’t exactly ‘bait and switch’, but it has that feeling.

But still, I went to the site, because I do want a laptop. I didn’t get one. The site defeated me.

Why? Primarily, it was because the site’s design and functionality were too slick, too coy, too hyper. I didn’t feel comfortable in navigating it, didn’t feel that I could ‘trust’ these folks to deliver a good deal. There were so many options that I quickly lost track of where I was -- it began to feel like a quick-talking street hawker. Some of the options didn’t make sense to me, while others went against the grain. Why, for example, did they so often offer one option level as ‘Dell Recommended’ , yet the default for the selection was something else? What was that ‘recommendation’ based on, a price/functionality tradeoff or profit for Dell? And what exactly does the Gimcrack Z9456 UltraCache buy me? Certainly can’t tell from the site. My feeling is simple: if I can’t understand it, the information is useless. And so I flamed out.

Speaking against the style of the Dell site is marketing heresy, because Dell has been remarkably successful in tweaking (and in some cases bludgeoning) the supply chain so as to decrease time to market and increase profitability. Their direct sales technique is a major component of that success, so suggesting that the site is counterproductive feels like going to Rome and suggesting that the Vatican would be nicer if it didn’t have all those religious icons littering the landscape. Dell is successful, in part, because it exerts a lot of effort to evaluate the layout, content, and flow of their site -- what sells, what doesn’t; what prompts a visitor to click-through to another page, and what doesn’t get invoked as often; which inducements work, which do not. They make it easy to buy.

But not this time.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Some various thoughts --

Carly Fiorina is walking away from HP with 45 million dollars in cash and options. Greed isn't dead. I'm sure that she didn't take the job just for the money, but clearly boards don't yet feel they need to hold their fired CEOs to the same financial standards as their fired grunt employees.

Bush is pushing electronic health records. The concept makes sense. It promotes accountability and decrease repetition of data entry. Its a major inconvenience for doctors, who dislike change as a rule (sometimes with good reason), as they have to pick which of multiple competing styles of EHRs would work for them, and then have their existing records converted, but some are coming around.

Amazing news -- apparently, the people firing mortars and such in Iraq haven't decided to live peaceably, now that the election is done. Who would have thought it? And I see where Hamas says it doesn't feel bound by any governmental plans. Hard to question that one, as they, and similar organizations, have never been bound by governmental stricture. Does lead you to wonder though: whats the critical mass (and of what) where government replaces anarchy? I was reading in my terrorism book last night about the idea that there can be an acceptable level of terroristic activity, which government does not feel compelled to stomp out because it would lead to greater terroristic activity.... don't think I can buy that but I am not at all sure. Which is, of course, why I'm forcing myself to read an inherently unpleasant book.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Trifling with Truffles

I made the truffles yesterday. It was pretty easy, and except for having to haul the chocolate out every quarter hour to stir it, not too tedious. Unfortunately, though, they didn't taste very good.

The inner core of chocolate was good (you can always say, how could it not be, it's chocolate!) but the outer dusting of cocoa powder didn't add very much to the flavor -- it was, in fact, a detriment. I thought about just tossing the batch, but what we're going to do is put them into a thermal bag with a freezer pack and my partner will bring them into her office. She'll warn people that they were a first try, and that they're not as good as I had hoped they would be. A the end of the day, she'll toss the leftovers.

But it was fun, and I'll do it again.

This is not my fault

...and if it turns out that I find myself humming the theme to Raiders of the Lost Ark in church today, that's not my fault, either.

So three women are looking for a job, and the first takes the interview, at the end of which, the interviewer says "Okay, quickly -- how many Ds in Indiana Jones?" To which she astutely replies "One, of course". The interview nods, says 'We'll be in touch", and sends her on her way.

A second woman comes in, does well on the interview, too , at the end of which, the interviewer says "Okay, tell me now -- how many Ds in Indiana Jones?" To which she quickly replies "One, of course". The interview nods, says 'We'll be in touch", and sends her on her way.

And the third comes in, makes it through the interview, then is asked the same quick question. She hums, thinks intently, pulls out a scratch pad, starts making notes, and after a couple of minutes says confidently "Sixteen!" Astonished, the interviewer says "How did you get that number?"

And the third woman replies "Dah dah DAH dah, dah dah dah, dah dah DAH DAH, dah dah dah dah dah...."

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Move Along, Move Along

Nothing to see here. This is a low-content sort of day.

I got up early this morning and went into the office. I didn't want to, but I had a file that I needed to upload to our customer's mainframe, and due to the inexplicable way that the customer's vendor has configured their firewall, I could not FTP to the mainframe from home -- I have to be physically connected to the LAN at work. Now, okay, LANS and firewalls are still a bit mysterious to me -- I remember when my company first started using LANS, and one of the groups named their LAN 'NeverNever' (which I thought and still think was kind of cool) -- but I cannot believe that this is topologically necessary. I think they just backed themselves into a corner and it would take too long to undo it. Besides, it affects us, their subcontractors, not them directly, so who cares?

So I got to go in, upload my file, do some minor tweaks to it, and then come home again. At least on the way home I got to stop at a place called Panera and pick up some bagels. The fine folks at Panera apparently wish that you would not come to their store, as they're always slow and somewhat disorganized. With three people in the whole store this morning, the clerk asked me 'Is that all?' in an abrupt manner, leaving me thinking 'How tough would it be for you to smile, or to suggest something else to go along with that order?' Granted, its always easier from my side of the counter to see these flaws.

Speaking of flaws, I read an article in Fortune Small Business the other day about the abrupt death of the Ground Round restaurant chain, which shut down right before the dinner hour on a Friday night, causing some of the stores to literally eject customers with take-home boxes of partially consumed meals. The article makes the bankruptcy sound like a train wreck, with the employees and customers the absolute last to know. Apparently, some stores have reopened -- mostly, ones owned independently, not by the company -- and are doing all right, though not great. Its an interesting article.

There was also an article about a company called Minute Clinic, which offers basic medical services in fifteen minutes, and is located in Target stores. I like the idea. I read a comment in a doctor's blog the other day to the effect that 'everyone wants to prescribe drugs, and you really need to be a doctor to understand that'. I wonder about that. Physicans Assistants and Certified Nurse Practicioners do it (though under some degree of supervision by a doctor), and that seems to work fine. I think the the medical industry is being pretty stodgy on the concept, but it could be my basic bias against doctors coming out there, as I have only known two doctors in my adult life who I liked, and one of them, I've only physically met once -- a very bright woman who lives out in California. Similarly, of the CRNPs I've met, I've only met one I trusted -- and it isn't the one I'm seeing now.

AM meter readings have been mostly good.

I might make truffles today. I have wanted to do this for quite some time. I am not a great baker -- I am barely a baker -- but the effect of seeing all of these chocolate-oriented comments in various locations has been to resurface that thought. Its mostly a 'gee, I wonder if I can do this' sort of thing. No one is going to mistake me for Emeril -- whose show I finally saw for the first time, the other day. I see why people like him, though I do not understand a roomful of people ooh and aahing over poured chocolate, which is what happened there. I don't think anyone will be doing that here. The timing is a little suspicious, I admit, for someone who is not a proponent of Valentines Day (or any other orchestrated sentiment delivery day). I have been known to say Lets celebrate Valentines Day by shooting people with real arrows! Or lining people up in a garage and killing them! My recommendations usually go unheeded -- which, depending on how the truffles go, may be their fate, too.

But speaking of chocolate, I found a nifty company called Cowgirl Chocolates, which makes some nice and unique stuff. What happened was that I was buying some Goldwaters Salsa from a company called Sam McGees (the salsa was originally a gift from a friend in Arizona, and you can't get it around here). McGee's offered a 3 piece sampler of CC's stuff, and we really liked it. You can't eat a lot of it at once -- well, I can't -- because it's got pepper and spices in it, but thats part of what makes it a unique taste.

Other uniqueness: my daughter had her first orthodontist's visit. It was a quick in and out, putting spacers on some teeth, and although it was not terrible, it wasn't great, either, as the assistant had difficulty getting one spacer on, to the point that my daughter's mouth hurt when it was done. I can hardly wait to see how she feels when the heavy lifting starts. We've already been advised to give her Tylenol or Motrin a half hour before any dentistry - - imagine what message that is giving her. The people working there are very efficient in terms of scheduling and making sure they get paid, and the dentist that my daughter will have is a pretty nice guy -- though apparently most of the actual work will be done by the aforementioned assistants. I have a feeling we're going to have to keep an eye on these folks, just to be sure we don't get trampled by the steamroller.

I wish I could talk myself into spending two thousand bucks for a laptop. My wife has a Dell from her job that I really like -- way superior to this Thinkpad. And I wish it came without all of the junk that laptops come with -- pitches to Buy This, 'free' software that expires, 'Dell recommends Windows XP', all of that crap. And what the hell, I wish it were delivered by a Rockette in an amorous mood.

That's enough vapid comments for right now, I think.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Bush to Seek More Funding for Polish Military


Turns out there's an actual news story behind it, but doesn't that headline sound like a setup for a punch line?

Monday, February 07, 2005

Reading TR

Once again an issue of Technology Review has come my way, and once again I'm done with it in about fifteen minutes. That's not because I'm an exceptionally fast reader, but because much of it just doesn't seem either interesting or relevant to me. That's unfortunate. I subscribed to TR years ago when it was a heavily geekish magazine, and resubscribed about two years ago when it was reinvented as a somewhat geekish magazine that seemed aimed at people who once had been geeks, still were, in their hearts, but now wore suits to work. Lately, TR seems to have much more of the suits, and much less of the geeks, and that's the wrong mix, for me.

But even the issues that I whip through have something to grab my eye -- in this issue, back in a section of brief scientific procedural abstracts (which were pretty interesting, I must admit), I found an ad for a company called WeInvent. Got to love a name like that. Going to the site, it appears to provide a suite of services intended to bring vague concepts and nascent ideas to fruition, market, and profit. Quoting from their site:

(Our) creations include: the ten-second hand dryer, the electronic time stamp, the electronic credit card calculator, the electronic checkbook calculator, active electronic jewelry, the golf club head with the expanded "sweet spot", a line of eight different microwave appliances including the microwave corn popper and the microwave coffee maker, advanced microwave ovens, advanced electric ovens, and samarium cobalt magnets.
Quite an array, even if I haven't a clue what a samarium cobalt magnet is, or could be used for. Puts me in mind of a brief scene in a science fiction novel I read years ago, set in a massive city complex (I think the book was by Jerry Pournelle, and the city name was something like Todos Santos), where a brand new security cop is taking a drink of coffee from the station coffee pot. He exclaims in surprise that the coffee is actually good, and the person bringing him along says that of course it is; they looked to find a coffee pot that did so reliably, and then bought a truckload of them.

Gosh, that sounds like teriffic idea. So do these guys. I wish them luck.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Seeking Islamic Information

I received a comment the other day which gave me pause.

A person said that he had posted an innocuous comment on the IslamiCity site, and as result received some fairly harsh responses - along the lines of "you'd better hope we don't find you". My first reaction to that was "Well, sure, what do you expect from those people." But then I wondered: Is that fair? (And my mind whispered: Are they?) Like a lot of Americans, I suspect, my view of Islam is pretty narrow, and its not at all impossible that its pretty far off base. So I decided to go check out the site myself.

It's pretty well done -- well laid out, with the clearly stated intention of propagating information about Islam, and to encourage members in the application of their faith across all spectra of their lives. It wasn't speaking to me, but I could see it being a strong force in the lives of people who believe as they do.

That being my perception, I didn't understand how an innocuous comment could spawn such a response. I wondered if the person(s) who had responded weren't Islamic at all, but rather agents provocateurs, making the kind of responses that Americans might expect -- responses that would trigger the reaction that I had. Or perhaps they are Islamic, but on the fringe -- the fiery-eyed radicals that many religions have (though this one more than others, my mind whispered). Or even: perhaps they are Islamic, and they represent the true face of Islam, the one that will not be satisfied until it achieves dominance in the world and subjugation of all other forms of religion.

This was more than a little disquieting, and what was worse, I had no way -- and have no way -- to get a sense of which is right, or which is closest to being right. All I know of Islam is what I see in the papers, as they say, and what I see in the papers is usually pretty bad. You cannot judge a religion by everyone who says they are acting in its name, but if everyone you see acting in one way says it, you begin to wonder if it might actually be true. How would you know?

I wish I had an answer, or even a hint of one. One answer seems to be reading, but even there: reading what? Reading the Koran (and there: not in the original? Then surely you are getting interpretations, not the actual original) might be an answer, but perhaps modern Islamic believers don't want to be held to each sura (is that right? I think so) any more than a modern Christian wants to be held to each verse of the Bible. Though perhaps there are intent Islamic who feel that you damn well should be held to each, just as there are intent Christians who feel the same. Or perhaps I should read one of those many books that purposes to explain Islam to Christians -- but what's their slant? Are they proselytizing or apologizing? Or just making a buck?

Or I could go to the local mosque -- I actually know where there is one, near my home -- but would that be like the well meaning liberals going to a black church in the sixties? (Oh, no, here comes another Christian seeking truth and friendship, the mullahs would mutter.)

So where do you even start?

Saturday, Saturday

Doesn't have quite the ring of Monday, Monday, does it?

I found out this morning something I already knew, and that my wife has known for years, possibly at the genetic level. Food helps. I got up this morning because a) I couldn't really sleep, and b) because I had a system upgrade to check out, and c) because my daughter had done her normal 'bound out of bed because its a weekend' routine. So I grudgingly, and a little grumpily, staggered out of bed -- but once I was up, and had breakfast, I felt a lot better, about me and about life. It didn't hurt that we had some Ghiradelli coffee, arrived yesterday from First Colony Coffee, with the breakfast. ,,Sausage, waffles, chocolate-orange coffee. Life is good.

I just reread an article from last Sunday's Washington Post on seniors (wince) and the internet, the gist of which is, they're a lot more capable of using it than you might think, and they're a lot less likely to use it than they could be, simply because they're not that adventurous and no one has taken the time to show them how to get started, how to be wary on the net, or what they can do with it. The article is a great read, and as an extra bonus. theres a photo composite of Irene Ryan as Granny Clampett (The Beverly Hillbillies), with a set of headsets, ,a Mac laptop, and a big grin.

Found a recipe for apple fritters that I'll have to try. We used to buy frozen apple fritters from the local Giant supermarket, but following their normal practice ('Find out what they like, and either stop carrying it, or move it so that they can't find it'), we haven't had any for a while. This should be fun.

It appears to me that the furor over SocSec is starting to die down. I suppose that could be simply that people are moving to newer, fresher outrages, or that they're coming to the conclusion that they can't do anything about it, but what I hope is happening is that people are starting to think about the possibilities inherent in the privatization concept. Initially, I was opposed to it (learning at the same time that 'older workers' would not have their Social Security touched, and that I was one of those workers, was a decidedly mixed blessing), but as I mull it over, I'm not as opposed as I had been.

Part of that is because I am fortunate. Our savings and our modest investments have done well; even were they to do as badly as the market did a few years ago, we'd still be okay. Nervous, but okay. I know thats not the case for a lot of people, and for them, the program should remain as it was. But if you're willing to accept the risk -- I think its a decent idea.

So far, anyway.

And now, to get ready for my daughter's sleepover day. Ain't none of us getting enough sleep, this weekend !


No special reason....I was just thinking of a title, and that came to mind. I've never been to Guantanamo Bay, though I did used to know the lyrics to Guantanamera (did I spell that right?), if that helps.

I've been in a bit of a funk, the last couple of days, and haven't been sure why. A number of small things, but no clear cause -- yet just about anything would set me off. And even good things haven't helped, which is rare for me. I found a piece of Lotus code that might help me do something in LotusScript that I've wanted to do (its a DocLink method, if you're curious). I baked a chocolate cake for my daughter's birthday -- she's going to ice it with her friends, who will be sleeping over tonight. I'm still into the history of British seapower, though I have been glancing at a book about buildings and architecture. My meter readings yesterday were not just good but phenomenally good. I should be in a good mood, but I'm not.

Somebody get the cathartic cattle prods, I think my psyche needs a jump start.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Officials: Social Security shield for older workers

From CNN:

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Social Security benefits promised to workers 55 and older would remain unchanged under President Bush's call for voluntary personal accounts for younger Americans, Republican congressional officials said Wednesday, citing information provided by the administration.

My goodness. I do believe that's the very first time I've ever been in a group called 'older workers'.

"We're all one serious illness away from bankruptcy"

Forbes Magazine:

WEDNESDAY, Feb. 2 (HealthDayNews) -- Illness and medical bills contributed to roughly half the personal bankruptcy filings in 2001, affecting as many as 2.2 million Americans, a new Harvard study says.
More than 75 percent of the filers had insurance, but many of them lost coverage during their illness, the research showed.
The study, which appears in the Feb. 2 issue of Health Affairs, provides a rare -- and stark -- glimpse into the medical causes of bankruptcy in the United States.
People who succumb to medical debt are mostly middle-class or working-class people who own their own homes and have at least some college education, the study found.
"I think the message that we take away is, really, nobody is safe in our country. Short of (Microsoft Chairman) Bill Gates, if you're sick enough long enough, you're likely to be financially ruined," cautioned study author Dr. David Himmelstein, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
"We're all one serious illness away from bankruptcy," he added.

Blue Pizza

I just got to feed the local police department. It was neat.

What happened was, I drove by the police station the other day (we're pretty small, so we only have one), and I saw a sign out front that said Thanks For Your Support. Which got me to thinking: what kind of support have I ever given them? Moral support, sure, but thats about it. So I dropped an email to their web page email box and said that I'd like to do something to show that support in a more tangible manner. Got a reply from the chief, and we exchanged ideas.

The upshot was that this evening I went to a local pizza place, picked up five large pies -- two cheese, two pepperoni, one sausage -- and brought them to the station, where the cops were having a recurring department meeting. Truth to tell, I was a little apprehensive that this might be too much pizza, but as they came into the room, and I saw the size of these people -- not a fat one there, either -- I thought, maybe I should have brought more . The chief introduced me, I made a little speech, they said thanks, and then I left them to it. And, oh yeah, my daughter, hearing that I was going to meet the entire local police department, had come along, so as we were leaving, she got the thrill of having all of the cops thank her for coming, too.

Way cool.