Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Kinko's et al

I was thinking about weird stuff on the way in to work this morning.

I had wanted to work from home, because today's the day that the cleaning service woman comes. We want to give her a small bonus -- we're impressed by how well she does, and a hearty handshake wouldn't quite do it -- but we wanted to do it in person, both for the pleasure of doing it and to make sure that it went to the right person (sometimes they send someone else). And that meant that one of would have to be there. But yesterday I told one of our customer's managers of a problem, and he said well, lets talk about it tomorrow, so I had to come in. Not that its a big deal -- I try to remember that most people don't get the chance to work from home as I do. Just a little deal.

A couple of years ago I heard a horrible story of an elderly woman who was essentially trapped in her car, and died there. From the news articles, she was unable to unlock the door or roll down the window. Examination of the battery showed that it had enough power to unlock the window and door, and the door's mechanical unlock worked -- but she couldn't get out. The detail that particularly terrifies me is that she apparently wrote Help Me on the window in lipstick, before she died.
That image still gives me the shivers.

I have a document thats in PDF format. I think that PDF is good stuff, but its a bear to search -- the little search box is seriously inadequate. So, undoing years of technical progress, I took it to a local Kinkos and had them print, punch, and binder it. Search capabilities go to zero, of course, or just about, but the note taking and tabbing facilities go almost to infinity. While I was waiting, I started thinking about document search techniques again. Thats one of the many things that I know just a little bit about, and wish I knew more, except that 'more' means many, many classes and deeply technical discussions, the nature of which I cannot fathom, let alone the content. Still, I wish I knew more about how you 'extract' information from a document. You've got this codified information that someone went to the trouble of putting into print, but its become 'static'. How do you make it fluid? How do you make it updateable? Hell, how do you make it searchable in a way that doesn't make you guess what the format of the word might be?


Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Down in Flames

I was sorry to hear about Randy Cunningham.

Pizza and Thunder and Sweet Jazz, Oh My !

The pizza is from Dominos, which has got a winner with their Cinnastix, aka Cinnamon Bread Sticks. We've been eating more pizza lately as both of us have been working longer hours. Domino's isn't exactly on the way, but its close. I imagine that the people who work there get used to the aroma pretty quickly, but as for me, I always enjoy that first whiff when I go into their store. It helps that they recently moved from a cramped location next to the railroad track to a freshly remodeled, brightly lit store (now, if they’d just park their cars someplace other than right outside the store), whereas their major competitor, Pizza Hut, is working from a beat up store front that looks like its been flour-bombed.

The thunder is thanks to some kind of weather front moving slowly through the area. They’re actually broadcasting a tornado alert, which I always used to ignore until one ripped up the blue spruce in the back of the house. No damage to speak of except to my checkbook; ouch, that hurt! The rain’s coming in fits and starts; drizzling on occasion, then lashing against the windows.

Good night to be listening to some sweet, quiet jazz - Hank Jones ‘For My Father’. I’m not that much of a jazz fan, but when its like this, its easy to enjoy – quiet, peaceful, but with purpose.

I’ve been reading a couple of books at once, and gazing at the third which hasn’t even been opened except for glancing at it in the library. The one that I’m reading in the dining room is Bread Alone, by Judith Ryan Hendricks; it predates The Baker’s Apprentice, which I picked up thinking was a baking book, but which is actually a novel, like the predecessor. I like both of them but, to my surprise, I like the second better. So I guess that the old saw about sequels is true, even if the sequel, as in this case, is actually the first. She’s gone a nice, easy writing style. I suppose the books could be characterized as chick books, but I like them. And there’s some bread recipes along with the plot, which helps.

The bedroom book is the Intuition one. I’m enjoying it, still, though I do find that I have to skip every so often. My brain is shutting down when I’m in there, so its harder for me to grasp some concepts. Which is a good reason not to be reading the third book, which is the updated version of Hawkings “A Brief History of Time”. No matter that it is simpler and more straightforward than the original, its still tough stuff.

Wow – the rain is gurgling down, and the thunder overhead just shook the house. I don’t think I’ll lose power – I’m writing this on the laptop – but maybe its time to close.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Health Care

An article on the local public television station tonight told me two things that should not have surprised me, but did.

One was that even if you're a doctor, that doesn't mean you have or can afford decent health care.

The other is that the percentage of people without prepaid - ie, insured - access to health care is rising dramatically.

I find that pretty scary.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Page that Pager

Pagers can vibrate, or they can make sounds.

You put it on vibrate when you don't want to disturb others when it goes off. You put it on sound when you don't think you'll be able to notice the vibration.

I wear mine set to sound because if I lose it -- mine's one of the dinky little numeric-only ones, just made to slip behind a seat cushion -- there is no way I'll find it, because you can't hear the vibration more than a couple of feet away, and that only if its sitting on a hard surface. I once lost one under a hospital bed cushion and damned near caused the person looking for it to have a heart attack -- she lifted the cushion, saw it, reached for it, and it started buzzing angrily like it was about to attack. Lucky she didn't grab it and heave it straight into the closest Sharps.

So here's a thought.

How about a 'special' page function that will switch the pager over to 'find-me audible mode'? That way, you can keep it on vibrate, but if you lose the silly thing, you can force it to make helpful little chirping sounds that you have a chance of hearing.

And maybe if they wanted to be really helpful, it'd play recorded messages, like 'Hey, dummy, over here! One two three four five. One two three four five. Hey, dummy, over here!


I came across the name of an organization today that just sounded 'friendly' to me.

The organization is the Center for Neighborhood Technology.

I thought wow, these folks probably talk about things like keeping traffic moving in congested areas with smart traffic lights and lane-usage monitors, implementing community-level Local Area Networks, setting up communications infrastructures for area-wide hot spots, building homes which use innovative technologies (both in the building and in the use; for example, using grey water to irrigate the plants; using plate heaters to heat the water).

Turns out I was a little right and mostly wrong. What they really are is an organization dedicated to making cities more livable, more energy-efficient, and less polluting. No LAN tips here, no communication infrastructures. Nothing about traffic flow, though there was some info on the hidden costs of 'free' parking. And nothing about the nearest hot spot.

But, for all of that, they seem like a decent bunch of folks.

I Spy

In the name of defense against terrorist attack, the military has expanded its ability to gather, exchange, and store information on people in this country. They have set up programs to analyze this information in greater depth and with more sophisticated techniques. The organizations executing this analysis-- the latest to be ‘outed’ is CIFA, the Pentagon’s Counter Intelligence Field Activity - are doing so essentially without public oversight - gathering what they want, drawing the conclusions they want. Now, according to the Washington Post, they want to be able to act. They want the authority to secretly carry out domestic criminal investigation and ‘operations against potential threats inside the United States’. They’d like to get this ability by presidential fiat, without any congressional approval.

I’m opposed to this. I don’t trust organizations without oversight. I don’t trust organizations that get to affect my life without needing my approval. I wouldn’t agree to let people put in streetlights without knowing who they were. I certainly don’t agree to establishing yet another spy agency. Is that always the answer? Establish more organizations with bigger budgets, blacker operations, and better turf battles? I think its insane.

But I bet I know what Tricky Dick Cheney thinks about it.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Those Books

I've added a couple of new books to the listing of things that I'm reading. I don't always do that, but these are pretty good.

The first is Death in a Strange Country, which is one of a series written by Donna Leon, all set in Venice, and all (I think) with the same basic cast of characters. She has a wonderfully dry and evocative style.

The second is The Power of Intuition. I hesitated about putting that there, because it sounds so much like Enhance Your Earning Power through Channeling Your HyperShakra!!!!!! But its actually pretty good -- a laymans guide to the process of decision making and perception. I wouldn't call it fun reading, but I like it.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Distant Typing

This is a very odd feeling.

After years of typing into the laptop, with my face about ten inches from the screen, or the desktop, with it about twelve inches away, the screen is now about twenty inches away. I feel as if I need my telescope glasses.

The reason is that we did the desk swap, and its worked out pretty well. We have what feels like acres of space for the desk we use for work, and the offspring has a desk that is the right size for her. You have to be a bit careful coming into the room where this desk is, now, because it stretches about two inches closer to the door, which means there is about two inches less clearance as you pass between the desk and the file cabinet, and I foresee some barked hips and shins as a result. And the screen does feel as if I'm outside the drive-in, eyeing the movie and guessing at the words.

This is, I'm pleased to say, a Problem of the Idle Rich.


The desk for the offspring arrived today. My, oh, my. It turns out that when you evaluate a desk while standing a large showroom, you get a diminished sense of the size of the desk. And when all of the desks of that type are compared to it, and they're all about that same size, then that reinforces the sense of 'oh, this is the size they are'.

But when it arrives in the house...and is placed in the space where the old kid-size desk was (suitably enlarged by the removal of a stack of boxes), and it still overwhelms the room... well.

Its important to me that my daughter trust me to keep my word, so when we were obviously dismayed by it, she asked if we wanted to switch it with the (smaller) one that we use. No, no, I said, this is the desk we promised you, use it in good health. But I kept thinking about it. And finally I screwed up my courage and went and said 'How would you feel about swapping desks, after all?' She looked up from the television and said 'Sure, I'm fine with that.'

What a great kid.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

On Top of Spaghetti

There are probably people who can look at a pile of cooked spaghetti and see it as multiple intertwined yet nonconnected strands. These people would likely use arcane phrases to describe that scene, something like 'geospatially nondeterminate multiple curvilinear simplex intersection-variant hypercoagulated transfixed elements with a meatball'.

These are the people who should design help desk systems. More specifically, these are the people who should design the systems that would tell you, when something is broken, who to call.

(Cue the Ghostbusters theme)

This morning, I was happily banging away at a customers system, installing a software product on the quick, and I had just done a test of the change when -- thud. My session hung. I sat looking at the frozen screen for about thirty seconds, waiting patiently...and then not so patiently...for it to come back. But it didn't. I went off to compose and send a couple of emails, and still nada. EMS1166E Relay mode logon request failed for application is such a graceful phrase, don't you think?

So I called the help desk. Now I did this knowing that the chances of actually getting help were small. But heck, any nonzero number in a storm. So I did, and found myself talking to a chipper person in Mumbai who informed me very quickly that while it was true that the automated system said to call him for connectivity problems, it was wrong: they had just changed that, here, I'll put you back in the queue, press two, then two again, goodbye.

Okay. So I hear the recording start. And it says 'To hear this message in English, press one.' And then in French, what I assumed was 'to hear this message in French, press two.' Well, okay, thats obviously a non-starter. So I hung up and dialed back in, and this time I found myself talking to an American. (Amazing how you think they might know more just because you can actually understand them.) This guy said that well, yes, this was the network help desk, but he didn't actually fix network issues, all he did was reset passwords. But wait, maybe he could find who did fix them.

Five minutes later he came back triumphantly, saying that he'd found the people who did, but their line was busy, so he was going to connect me to them, good luck.

A couple of minutes later, I was talking to a person who asked good questions, then said Gee, we don't really handle that. Let me see if I can figure out who does. And she went off, coming back in a minute to say Okay, I found out who does, let me connect you.

Well, theres no reason to stretch this out further. Just let it be known that at the end of it I was actually talking to someone who really did know how to fix it. He couldn't, as it turned out, because the problem was not just me, but a Major Network Outage. He advised me to try again later. The implication being, much later.

What would it have taken for me to get him in the first place?

I know, I know -- as systems become more interconnected, its not always obvious who can fix them; its not always obvious what the problem even is, let alone the resolution. But somewhere there was a Right piece of spaghetti, and if I had just started there, I'd have been done sooner.

But finding that piece....ah, theres the rub.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

I love this stuff !

From today's Washington Post:

"Might the properties, even the existence, of Hawking radiation depend on the microscopic properties of spacetime -- much as, for example, the heat capacity or speed of sound of a substance depends on its microscopic structure and dynamics?"

The scary part is, I have the tiniest -- I'm talking nanoscale, here, if not smaller -- understanding of what they're actually talking about. But thats neither here nor there. What's key is that its redolent with buzzwords and handwaves -- so of course I think its cool.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

What, Me Hostile?

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

After fiercely defending his Iraq policy across Asia, President Bush abruptly toned down his attack on war critics Sunday and said there was nothing unpatriotic about opposing his strategy.

Aw.... isn't that nice of him? Even money on whether this means that Cheney will jump up and bite somebody in the next week.....

Ka-ching. Tuesday's Washington Post reports Cheney on the attack again. Gee, that was a tough call....

Working on the second million

My father in law used to say that he was working on his second million....having given up all hope of his first. I think that the people who can avail themselves of the articles about 'your second career' are those who were actually able to get it...and then some. Like the ad I saw in Fortune magazine, several years ago, which showed the distinguished yet virile elderly man leaning thoughtfully on a fence rail, gazing into the distance. The caption was 'When it comes time for you to be put out to pasture....make sure you own the pasture.'

Nevertheless, the idea of a 'second career' is a seductive one. Again referring to popular culture, I'm reminded of a Doonesbury strip years ago where an exasperated father is asking just when his sun is planning on getting a job. The son calmly retorts that he already knows what kind of job he wants -- one without pressure, with co-workers who are interesting yet mellow - the father interrupts. "You're not planning on getting a job, are you?" Thats the second career I want. One where you do it for the pleasure of it, not the paycheck of it. Not necessarily one thats easy, or one where you can take your sweet time, coming in when you want, leaving when you want, but one that delights you. One that you'd do for free.

One thing I've noticed in the articles about people who have these jobs is that they almost entirely fall into one category, and those that do not, almost entirely fall into a second category. The first category is that they're unskilled relative to the first profession that the person held. Thus, former accountants take up collecting and selling rare books; former lawyers take up cultivating orchids. The new careers require experience and expertise, but not formal training as did the first. And if the second careers are in fact skilled ones, then the person doing them had already been doing them to some extent -- the doctor had been studying network systems in his spare time; the lawyer was already a private pilot and decided to do it full time. In almost no case does the former blue collar worker decide to take up something that requires time, training, and/or resources.

I heard once that the reason adults ask kids what they want to be when they grow up is that the adults are still working on the answer to that question. At least in my case, thats true. Part of the reason is that for much of my life I actually believed those articles about finding the perfect job -- one that fulfilled you, one where they needed you. I blush to think of that now -- and, like so many others, I have a Dilbert under the glass of my desk at home to remind me of that folly.

Yet I still want to believe that it's possible, even if 'just' as a second career.

Saturday, November 19, 2005


Whether or not you support the reason that our troops overseas are where they are, it's possible to support them for what they do.

One of the many sites that does this is Operation Gratitude.

The Economic Valuation of Houses

We’ve been talking about houses again.

One of the truly great things about our marriage (and this is something that we don’t often think about) is that we have pretty much the same values about money. Thats a great help when we’re doing the ‘fumbling in the dark’ where you try to get a sense of whether something is worth the money that’s being charged for it. Economic theories of worth aside, there are things that are clearly worth the cost, and others that clearly are not. But that leaves a whole lot of things where you have to make the assessment yourself, and its one where two people with similar styles can come to radically different conclusions. (I almost wrote ‘conflusions’, which looks as if it ought to be a word.)

For example, we just received our annual copy of the Sharper Image catalog, one of the many that arrives at Christmas time. We only get one a year because we never buy from them, but when it arrives, we always leaf through it, nodding at some products, grimacing at others. (I just read ‘Blink’, about instantaneous subconcious decision making; its not great but the material about involuntary reactions to people and situations, in that regard, is really interesting stuff.) Our overall take is almost always ‘And people buy this stuff?’ Clearly, they do, and in sufficient numbers to continue the brand. Years ago I saw an English comedy called ‘The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin’ where the lead character, his life in ruins, comes back by starting a chain of stores where you are guaranteed that whatever you buy will not work. Absurd, of course, but then again, so is Sharper Image. Yet people just like us do buy into the SI concept. Why don't we? Because we're conservative -- about money, and other things. We change, but only if there's good reason. We spend, but only if there's good reason. As we (I hope not to the point of boredom) tell our offspring, that's how we got to have the modest amount of money that we have in the first place.

So when we talk about houses, we’re coming from the same place. We have the same values. And right now, our values are telling us that however nice that house was (and it was nice, though, you might say, not nice nice), it isn’t worth the money they want for it. Not that its terrifically out of line with what you might expect the price to be. Regular production houses around here are going for about $250,000. Our off the cuff estimate is that the additional things that the demo house has would add somewhere in the vicinity of $75 - $100, 000 to the cost. So that would mean that the house would sell somewhere in the vicinty of $350,000. They in fact sell it for $350 - $400,000. Its not more than a general match – for one, the regular production houses tend to be bigger than the custom one we looked at – but it sounds about right to us. Regular house plus $100,000 equals custom house. Custom 'smaller house than we have now' house.

We’re not willing to pay that. We’re not even willing to pay $250,000, if it came to that, but at least there we know that the bulk of that cost would be covered by what we earned in selling this house. If we bought the custom house, we’d essentially be giving this one away and spending the equivilent of a new production house to get.... this house. Better in multiple ways, but still... this house. We’re not going to do that.

So then the question is, what do we want to do?

Our next step is to look at the features we would want in a new house and see which ones could be put into this house. The biggest one -- and in fact the whole reason that we're looking at other houses -- is this: – how could we make this an accessible house for an elderly person. The thought that comes to mind is to put in an elevator, but no obvious place – or even not-so-obvious place – exists for that. Bedrooms at both ends, garage at one end, air conditioner hardware at the other, landscaping in front, deck in back – not at all obvious. In a better world, we’d be able to find a genial architect and sketch out some ideas. Say, about a hundred thousand dollars worth. (And if you don't think that thinking that number scares me, think again.)

We've even kicked around the idea of building a wing onto the house, to enclose an elevator, a new master bedroom, and such. Right over the ballroom with the crystal chandeliers and the floor to ceiling French doors which lead out onto the flagstone patio alongside the reflecting pool fed by the overflow from the enclosed pool and sauna, next to the hot tub in the natural rock grotto with the quietly splashing waterfall.

To quote from Stand on Zanzibar:

What an imagination I've got !

Friday, November 18, 2005

...and Thats the Name of THAT Tune!

From CNN:

Actor Robert Blake, who was acquitted of his wife's murder in March, was found liable Friday in the wrongful death civil trial brought by the estate of his slain wife, Bonny Lee Bakley.

He's acquited of the murder, but liable for the death. Kind of like those Nolo pleas, where you say you didn't do it and you'll never do it again. Boy, do I love high-profile American justice !


I gather that Dick Cheney and I have different opinions regarding what qualifies as 'reprehensible' conduct. He feels that it's reprehensible to question the rationale for a war while it's going on, whereas I feel it's reprehensible to wait until it's over to do so.

A war has got to have objectives that execution of it can meet, and so far I 've heard of just one: the elimination of Saddam Hussein as a power figure. Okay, done, and good deal. Now what? The rationale for being in Iraq seems to be 'to fight terrorism' and 'to make Iraq a democratic society'. Neither seems to be happening, but more important, neither seems to be something that can be achievable by fighting a war there.

Its possible that brighter people than me can see where in fact what we are doing does work to acheive those objectives, but as for me, its a non-starter. I think that the only thing we're doing is killing our people for no good reason.


From CNN:

LITITZ, Pennsylvania (AP) -- Police seized 54 guns from the home of an 18-year-old man charged with killing his girlfriend's parents and fleeing the state with her, according to court documents filed Thursday. Warwick Township police removed the collection of rifles, shotguns, handguns and ammunition Sunday from the home where suspect David Ludwig lived with his parents. .

I look forward to the NRA's facile explanation as to why it is normal for one person to have that much killing hardware. I'm sure it will be reasoned...and reasonable....and oblivious. Again.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Cheney Joins GOP Criticism of Democrats

I'm shocked -- shocked, I say -- that the President and Vice President of the United States would engage in partisan sniping.

Yeah, right.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


Hot Cranberry Salad

3 cups chopped apples (McIntosh)
2 cups whole raw cranberries
1 1/2 tsp. Lemon Juice
1 1/2 cup sugar
1 1/3 cup quick cooking oatmeal
1 cup chopped pecans
1/3 c brown sugar
1 stick melted butter

Spray 2 qt. Casserole with Pam. Toss together apples and cranberries.Sprinkle with sugar and lemon juice. Place in casserole dish.In medium bowl blend to moisten - oatmeal, nuts, brown sugar and melted butter. Pour mixture over fruit. Bake at 325 for 1 1/4 hour.

Amazingly good.

Monday, November 14, 2005


It was a nice house, but it wasn't a very nice house.

Yesterday afternoon, on a whim, we went to an open house at a local development. The houses are small, and attached, two to a unit. We knew that the builder was a high-end builder, so we expected that we would see a very nice house that was on the small side. Not quite.

The first floor was nicely laid out, the second, a bit barren (it had one bedroom, a large bath, and a very large open area whose purpose was not clear). The kitchen was small but pleasant (very large cooktop on an island; SubZero refrigerator, high-end GE appliances) and the architectural details were good (crown molding, archways, hardwood floors pretty much throughout). A small butler's pantry connected the dining room with the kitchen, no less than three bathrooms dotted the house. A full-house sound system played music throughout, including the outdoor sunroom. Overall, the quality was very good, yet, in an odd way, not any better than I'd seen in other new houses. Newer, yes. Better, no. Even when it was pointed out that the house had features that ours does not have, and which I'd like -- solid-core doors, for example, to cut down noise transmission, with 'ball bearing hinges', or a microwave that didn't block access to the range -- it didn't seem all that much better than ours.

The builder's plans showed that the model we were in was larger than our house, with about 2100 square feet on the first floor, and about 900 on the second floor. I wondered where all that space was, as the space felt snug to me. And the cost of the house was, to my mind, astronomical. Even given that a new mass-market house can easily cost about 60 percent of that house's cost, it seemed a staggering amount.

It gave me things to think about...and made our current house look much more attractive.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Some This, A Little of That

We had gotten pretty dissatisfied with the bacon we normally buy at Giant – about two-thirds of the time, the strips were flimsy, tearing as you pulled them from the slab, and frequently so fatty that they would shrink to about half their size. We tried buying the thicker slabs (which worked well when we would make a spicy bacon that involved cayenne pepper, crushed rosemary, and a lot of brown sugar), and getting Boars Head brand worked well, too (when we could find it; Giant likes to move things around in the store), but we wanted an alternative. I found a company called North Country Smokehouse that looked pretty good, and ordered some from them – we got their applewood smoked bacon and what they called pepper bacon. They had a nice flavor, though, to be honest, not as overwhelmingly nice as we’d hoped, given the price – but it turns out that they had one unexpected and rather nice side benefit: for an hour or so after cooking, the kitchen doesn’t smell like greasy bacon. It smells, instead, like someone’s been stoking a wood fire. I like it.

This is the time of year when people starting thinking about the things that charities wish they’d think about all year long, volunteering to work at soup kitchens, snagging coupons from the giving tree at church, that sort of thing. I’m the same way. I don’t think of myself as particularly generous, as a rule. About six months ago, I started a personal standard for what I give to the collection plate at church, which is: they get whatever the next to largest bill is that I have in my wallet. So if I have a twenty, and the next is a ten; they get the ten. As it happens, I don’t normally carry much cash, so that works out in practice to be a normal donation of five dollars a week. I will jigger that around a bit, as when I once had just gone to the ATM, had only twenties, and gave them one but dropped down one denomination next time, or sometimes I’ll give a little more, just because I’m feeling either guilty or generous. But this morning the pastor was talking about a visit he’d made to a young woman who is dying, and I thought with a start that I don’t even think about people like that. If I do think about it, I think well, there are people who, you know, handle that sort of thing, talking with the sick and dying. I realized with some discomfort that if all I’m doing is giving them five dollars a week, then thats not giving them much to work with.

An article in today’s Post also triggered a guilty spasm. Its about a woman who has taken on the task of supplying about seven hundred soldiers who are in the Army in Afghanistan with the niceties of life – disposable razors, throw away pens, things like that. She started because her son was in a specific unit, and it expanded as he asked her to send things for other in the unit. I was startled by her generosity, both of time and resources. I am always a bit uneasy about people like that. I can admire them from a distance, but up close, they scare me. I’m not sure why. So, from the comfortable distance of the dining room table where we were eating a magnificent Sunday brunch of orange chocolate coffee, waffles with white chocolate chips, and pepper bacon, I read about this woman, and looked at the picture of her living room just chock-full of packages, and thought ‘how do people do that?’ How do they get the drive and energy and compassion?

The NSA (yes, that NSA - the one colloquially known as No Such Agency) has a kids web site . From the Washington Post article:

It features the cartoon "CryptoKids," seven crime-fightin' math/code/language/technology baby geniuses. Rosetta Stone, for instance, is a language fox. According to the site, she has a "fox-cination with language and culture." (Those guys may be able to crack a 109-bit key elliptic curve algorithm in their sleep, but everyone can use rewrite.) The site teaches kids the difference between a code and a cipher, tells you that Rosetta Stone practices martial arts, and includes code-themed brain teasers and games.

Elliptic curve algorithm?

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Intelligent Design; Inelegant Politics

From the New York Times web site:

DOVER, Pa., Nov. 9 - In the end, voters here said they were tired of being portrayed as a northern version of Dayton, Tenn, a Bible Belt hamlet where 80 years ago a biology teacher named John Scopes was tried for illegally teaching evolution.

I am pleased by this.

ID, it seems to me, speaks to two different, possibly overlapping, types of people: those who prefer to believe that humankind comes from divine activity, not the application of biological principles, and those who believe that the theory of evolution is incomplete, and until complete is not sufficient to stand alone as the definitive explanation of our origin.

I believe that the first group has as a hidden agenda the promotion of religious observance in public schools. I believe that the second group is mostly people from the first who don’t want to admit to that agenda, and sought an alternative explanation that would pass secular muster. A small percentage of them might well feel that evolution isn’t sufficiently proven, but I doubt that’s their compelling reason.

I don’t have a problem with proposing a religious alternative to evolution (though I don’t understand why those who believe that divine activity brought us here can’t incorporate the concept, accepting the possibility that the deity might have brought us into being through the evolutionary process -- perhaps they find the concept distasteful, or just prefer that the deity take a more direct approach) but I do have a problem with sneakiness. I think that the advocates of ID were trying to sneak in a religious agenda, and thats wrong.

What if they did it because they honestly thought that the theory of evolution was incomplete, and IT a valid alternative explanation for how we came to be, without regard to religious concepts? Then, I suggest, they were being preposterous, like the probably apocryphal story of the school board that ruled to make Pi exactly equal to three. Suburban school boards aren't qualified to judge the worth of scientific theory. They can have opinions, of course, as can we all, but they cannot implement them without sufficient justification. Its difficult to imagine what would suffice for such justification.

Political concepts and the commonweal don't mix well. I have heard of Catholic bishops saying that they would not give sacraments to politicians holding values with which they did not agree, or failing to speak out against practices with which they did not agree. Moral force can be quite powerful -- but this isn't a theocracy, and we don't live according to the views of a mullah. Our lives can and should be guided and informed by religious and philosophical concepts, but thats it. The ability for religion to rule stops at the church door -- and at the door of the school board.


I was talking with my wife about a piece of software that I was installing at work, and I used the phrase ‘...and then they improved it.’ By which she understood that I meant "they took a piece of software that worked in a perfectly obvious way (or at least, in a way that I had learned to use) and made changes to it 'in the name of improvement’ that I regard as having been made ‘in the name of impediment’.

That phrase came to my mind this morning as I was looking at the backup software that we use routinely. It’s been having some problems -- announcing that it can’t back up files which, when you manually start the job, it then goes and does; occasionally having two copies of the job running at the same time. I’ve been thinking of removing it, cleaning it out entirely, and then reinstalling it. Only, its not quite that simple. For one, it seems to think that it needs to be running all the time (or at least resident all the time), and so if it is invoked, and finds that it’s not in the startup list for the PC, it adds itself. Even if there’s another instance in the list that was unselected, it does this. So when I remove it, that unselected option is still going to be there, with no apparent way of removing it. (Short of going into the registry, an exploit that I view with as much equanimity as going for an audit.) I’m sure that the people who put that hook into the software regarded it as a Good Idea -- an Improvement -- but I don’t, and it irritates me that I can’t just say ‘don’t do that.’ As a semi-software guy myself, I know why people don’t give users the option to make decisions like that, and I usually support that idea. But there are times when you want to slam your fist down on the keyboard and say ‘just DO it, dammit!’ -- but you can’t. I know this isn’t a big deal, still, it is an irritant.

It always impresses me when something really does get improved, or when people give thought to design. Useful design, not 'oh isn't that cute' design. I don’t hear of it happening that often -- the only instances I can think of are that Volvo concept car that was designed by a crew that was predominantly women, an office printer (don’t recall if it was HP, but I think so) that would note when it was first used in the morning and, over time, would turn itself on five minutes before then, so that you didn’t have to wait for it to warm up. (I hate waiting for the printer -- in our office, when I go by, if its sitting there in ‘power saver’ mode, I always hit start, just so the next person won’t have to wait.), and the Mozilla suite of software. Those are good improvements. They make (or have the potential to make) my life better.

But generally, I think -- Improvements. Fah.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005


Which I realize isn't a word.

I sometimes hear how, with a small amount of money, you can make a difference in people's lives. By small, I mean somewhere in the fifty to one hundred dollar range.

You can set up a one-time or recurring scholarship to a local school, or donate it to an organization, or...gee, I don't know. Do Stuff.

I think sometimes about doing that. Closest I've come was the Great Pizza Feed at the local cop shop (thinking of doing it again). But thats about it.

Wonder what it would be like?

Fill in the Blanks

If a church loses its tax-exempt status as a result of (fill in the blank, or choose one: an impartial review by competent tax specialists/a chaotic review by constitutional scholars and the press/whimsy), is that "a direct assault on freedom of speech and freedom of religion"?

Thats what the rector of a church in California said when he was informed that the church might lose its tax-exempt status as a result of an anti-war speech given by a guest lecturer.

I think he's wrong.

Loss of tax-exempt status has significant effects on the financial health of a church, and contemplation of that loss can cause the church to curtail activities -- but the church makes that decision, not the IRS. They can still speak; they can still practice religion.

As a side note, I don't think this question would come up if we trusted our agencies of government to be impartial and expert in what they do. Sadly.....(fill in the blank)

Monday, November 07, 2005

Premeditating Homicide

There is the possibility that, in six years, at right about this time, I will kill my daughter.

Okay, probably not. But I'll be thinking about it. Because this is when the Education issues come out for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and who knows how many other papers and magazines. Its when I leaf through them slowly, reading the articles, thinking Wow! You can take a course in that? And My Gosh, look at how terrific that campus looks! And gee, damn, I sure don't remember going to the local bar with any of my instructors for a lazy beer and long, rambling discussions! The sight of all that academic freedom -- hell, freedom, period -- awes me. Makes me damned envious, in fact. Where was this stuff when I went from high school into the military, the military into college, rushing through in two years, back into the military, then into a corporation? And these kids are just having this stuff handed to them?

That we have a secret fund that we call the First Year Fund, which is to fund, within reason, pretty much anything she wants to do for the first year after high school (it started as the First Year of College, but we expanded the idea), so that she could feel some freedom, not move in lockstep, see what some of the world is like -- well, all that's true. Its because of my experiences that I want to be sure she feels more freedom to choose than I did. But still, I want her to know that this is a Big Deal, having all this academic freedom, a smorgasboard of opportunity. I want her to savor it, wander through it, tasting the fruit, not limiting herself to one school or one discipline or one career path, not focusing too quickly. I want her to grow... and to know that she can do whatever she wants. This is where she can make it happen.

I will try very hard not to shove this down her throat, and if she demonstrates the normal teen-aged ennui about it all, not treating it as the really big opportunity that I'd kill for, I will try not to go ballistic. I will try not to kill her.

Making her wish she were dead, on the other hand.....

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Quis custodios ipsos custodiet ?

A lengthy article in today's Washington Post descibes the FBI's expanded use of National Security Letters in terms, and with examples, not likely to win friends at the FBI -- though it will likely influence them.

There seem to be one basic question:

Should the FBI specifically, and the government generally, have the authority to acquire and keep detailed information about anyone, based solely on their stated belief that they need it?

Such information can include data of any kind deemed desirable by the person issuing the NSL. The agency is not required to tell the target that information is being acquired, and will in fact explicitly tell the keepers of the information that they are legally prohibited from informing the target. And the agency can keep the information found forever, whether or not it proves relevant to a specific investigation.

The argument in favor of allowing such authority seems to be in two parts: ..
a) It's necessary to defend against terrorist attacks
b) If you have nothing to hide, nothing will be found, so whats to worry? And if you do, but it isn't used against you, so ditto.

It's difficult to be against what these people are trying to do. Their methods are another story.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Fun at Work

The other day I told the guy that I work for -- one of them, thank you, matrix management -- that I was enjoying something that I was doing, and would, in fact, do it for free. He said that he was glad I was having fun, though I imagine he thought I was a little strange for mentioning it. He knew why I said it, though -- it was technical work, which I don't often get to do.

What I'm doing is getting my organization up to speed quickly on a new series of software to be installed on multiple platforms. Most of the platforms are the same; not all. And it will all take a fair amount of customization as well as some tuning. I want to make people think that its worth having me do this so that they will be willing to pay a significant part of my salary to do it, and hence, so I can leave the job I have now, which frequently enough, sucks.

Doesn't hurt that I'm having fun, though.


I was just thinking that I ought to do more exercising. ‘More’ is somewhat of a misstatement, as in order to do more, I’d have to be doing some now, unless of course you say well, none is a number....but I think that would be being sly.

What puts this into my mind is all of the contortions and flips that I saw Antonio Banderas do last night in The Legend of Zorro. LOZ wasn’t my first choice for a film, but as my child was coming along, it was either that or Chicken Little. I think I would have liked CL, but the offspring chose LOZ, so thats where we went. And that was okay, because the goal wasn’t to see either of these so much as it was to spend some time with both the partner and the offspring, and we did that. An extra benefit for the offspring was that at the end of LOZ I made a bet regarding how the hero would escape the perilous situation, and I lost, so this morning’s payment of allowance included an extra buck. She actually doesn’t care about money too much – she is well known for leaving dollar bills wherever she was standing when she got them – but she liked the idea of winning, especially since the odds were that if I won, I wouldn’t have asked her to pay up.

As it happens, I thought LOZ was not all that great as a film, unless you liked contemplating what it’d be like to have CZJ as a mother, with all of that cleavage showing up all the time. What’s the equivalent of the Oedipus complex – is it Electra? Whatever, any male offspring of someone who looked like that would certainly have Issues. The kid did, anyway, but they stemmed more from being an arrogant mouthy kid than anything else. I think that the people who made the film thought they’d make one that Disney would have been proud of, and insofar as they broadcast just about every plot point, and had very simple dialogue, they did it. I wasn’t expecting or wanting Great Acting, but CZJ's heaving bosom was about the extent of it. Though seeing a horse leap on top of a moving train was kind of interesting..

Of course, I didn’t really think that it was a real horse on top of a real train any more than I thought that it was Antonio himself doing all those flips, twirls, and leaps, but it was nice, anyway, and as I said, it did make me think that I ought to exercise more. It also put my in mind of how I’ve always liked Spanish architecture – or perhaps I should say ‘americanized spanish architecture’, as I recall that one piece I always liked was a spanish-style chair and table that the lead actor on the Mission:Impossible series had (the second one, not the original), and I would bet that that hardly qualifies as ‘liking Spanish architecture’. Neither does liking refectory tables, either, though I do.

The movie – parts of it were so bad that I spent time out in the lobby, which was good for a different reason; I got to watch about a hundred fifty teens mill around before going in to see Saw II, which I know nothing about but which was apparently quite the deal for them. Most of them were just kids going through whatever forms of adolescent angst is normal, but some of them – well, I thought that I wished the girls had been around when I was in high school, they being apparently full-fledged members of Slutz R’ Us, and I thought that if any of the guys ever showed up at our house, we’d have had an instant ‘no way are you going out with that guy’ conversation with the offspring.

Of course, I know that not all of the apparent sluts actually are, no matter what the current articles about kids and oral sex say, and not all of the apparent gang-bangers are, either – but my feeling is, if thats the way they chose to look, then they get the benefit of how I feel about that. And giving me the opportunity to think about adolescents a little bit, just sitting and watching them mill around, cringing at some of the things they said and did (Not with my daughter, you don’t, you son of a bitch!) – that was all worthwhile. And I did go back in time to see the big ending, which Walt would have loved.

But I think that next time, I’ll see Chicken Little. At least that way, I wouldn't be thinking about exercise.