Tuesday, January 28, 2014


Pete Seeger, 1919-2014

Where have all the flowers gone,
Long time passing?
Where have all the flowers gone,
Long time ago?
Where have all the flowers gone?
Young girls picked them, every one.
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

Thursday, March 01, 2012


A bit of leap-year fact checking

On NPR’s Morning Edition yesterday, they had a brief item about the leap year, reported by Renee Montagne:

We woke up this morning to the rarest of dates: February 29th, the odd extra day that comes every four years, since there are, apparently, more than 365 days in a year.

A few sentences later, she noted this:

So, every four years we get a leap day. Making some sort of adjustment is key, otherwise the calendar would slowly become out of synch with the seasons.

But then she added something strange: The Hebrew calendar adds a whole extra month, every 19 years.

Um, no. That’s not right.

The Hebrew calendar adds an extra month, Adar I[1], but it has nothing to do with the extra quarter day: it’s to reconcile the lunar calendar with the solar one, and that shift is not slow[2]. And the extra month is not inserted once every 19 years, but seven times every 19 years.

This stuff isn’t hard to get right... it just takes a little checking, and whoever wrote that NPR item just tossed it out there with no checking at all.

They must have gotten it with both barrels, and quickly. By the time I went online to check the audio, they had corrected the online version without a word about the error. The line about the Hebrew calendar was removed, and replaced by a bit of silliness: Not quite Christmas in July, but it might feel that way.

I like the way the New York Times makes its online corrections: they leave the error there, and tell you what the correction is. Too bad NPR doesn’t do the same.

[1] Yes, it’s odd, but the added month is considered Adar I, while Adar II is the normal one (just called Adar in the 12-in-19 off years).

[2] This keeps, for example, Passover in the spring. The date moves around from year to year, but only within a few-week period. In contrast, the Muslim calendar, which is also lunar, does not have any correction. That means that there’s no resynch with the solar calendar, and Ramadan, for example, wanders throughout the year. Muslim friends tell me that the daytime fasting during Ramadan is much harder when it’s in June or July than when it’s in December or January.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


American values

It’s that time of year: a Tuesday near the end of January. It’s just past another anniversary of the president’s inauguration, and time for the annual tradition, the State of the Union address.

In this case, it’s President Obama’s third anniversary, and tonight he’ll give his third SotU speech. According to the Washington Post, this year’s talk will stress a return to American values.

All right, here it is: I’m sick to death of hearing about values. Values has turned into a codeword for reactionary politics, repression, and censorship. I don’t want to hear a speech about those kinds of values, especially from a president who has done little to fix the overstepping excesses of his predecessor, and, to the contrary, seems to embrace many of them.

American values used to be about freedom and opportunity, not control and rigidity. America was a country that didn’t abuse and arrest people for assembling peacefully. It didn’t arrest people for documenting how the police were handling situations. It didn’t keep political prisoners, detaining people indefinitely with no chance of formal accusation, trial, and defense. It didn’t limit the rights of people because of who they are, it didn’t restrict their access to medicines and medical procedures, it didn’t try to teach children mythology in science class, and it did not march a conservative Christian agenda down the streets everywhere.

You want to return to American values? Demilitarize the police, and get them back to engaging with the communities they serve and protect. Don’t send people off to secret prisons, close Guantánamo, and give everyone there a proper, open trial. Stop using terrorist the way dictatorships have used denunciation, as a way to whisk troublesome people away. When people get angry and want to protest, encourage them and give them a venue, don’t beat them down and throw tear gas at them as they sit non-aggressively. Allow yourself to be held accountable for your actions, and don’t threaten people who want to record what you’re doing. Don’t get involved in people’s private lives and personal decisions. And keep religion out of the government and public education. You can start that by not saying God bless in your speeches. Try it tonight.

Remember that American values came from our flight from having to live under someone else’s values. We can’t just replace the king’s values with those of your family, your church, or any other relatively small subset of Americans. Our values were set up to protect our rights and our freedom — everyone’s — and that is what we need to return to.

Oh, and fix the economy, yeah? Don’t just talk about it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


That argument again?

New Scientist, which seems to run hot and cold out of the sensible science tap, is chilling our tootsies off with an icy-cold flow: an unattributed editorial titled The Genesis problem. In it, they make one of the oldest, lamest arguments that attempt to support creation myths over the Big Bang theory:

The big bang is now part of the furniture of modern cosmology, but Hoyle’s unease has not gone away. Many physicists have been fighting a rearguard action against it for decades, largely because of its theological overtones. If you have an instant of creation, don’t you need a creator?

Cosmologists, the editorial goes on to say, thought they had a workaround.

Well, no... no workaround is needed. The argument is that my creation story (the big bang) involves an entity that itself needed to be created, but your creation story works because it involves the creator misses the point that your creator is also an entity that itself needed to be created. You don’t get to make a set of rules for the one and ignore them for the other, and if one creation entity can exist without creation, then so can another.

No, what’s needed isn’t a workaround, but an explanation, an understanding. You, perhaps, have your understanding because someone made up an answer and you believe it: God has always been, and always will be. Cosmologists — at least the majority, who aren’t trying to fit cosmology into a theistic system — still have a piece that they don’t understand, because they’re not willing to make up an answer that doesn’t follow from the data. If they were, of course, their explanation could be very similar to the theistic one: the primeval atom always existed, and created the universe through the big bang.

We come into a clash of aspects of human understanding when we discuss any genesis explanation. People understand things to have beginnings and ends, and have a hard time coping with things without beginnings. And people like to have questions answered, definitively. When each answer uncovers more questions, we tend to be unsettled. That it seems easier to accept a God with no beginning than a primeval atom with no beginning is perhaps odd, but there it is. God can then be used to explain anything, wrapping things up nicely... for those who are willing to believe those explanations.

I’d rather accept that we don’t yet understand, than to make up facile answers that have no basis in reality. I even accept that we might never really understand it, might never have the real answers. We’ll keep looking at what’s actually there, and we’ll find what we’re able to find.

Thursday, January 12, 2012


No mean feat

Physicist Stephen Hawking turned 70 last weekend, and has been living with ALS — amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — for nearly 50 years. Usually, the disease is diagnosed in patients over 50, and they die within a few years. I was reading an article in Scientific American about Dr Hawking’s longevity. The article contains an edited interview with Dr Leo McCluskey, an ALS expert at the University of Pennsylvania.

One answer, in particular, struck me:

Sci Am: What has Stephen Hawking’s case shown about the disease?

Dr McCluskey: One thing that is highlighted by this man’s course is that this is an incredibly variable disorder in many ways. On average people live two to three years after diagnosis. But that means that half the people live longer, and there are people who live for a long, long time.

The mathematician in me rose up at that: no, on average does not mean that half the samples are on each side of the average. Average refers to the arithmetic mean — take a bunch of numbers, add them, and divide by the count (how many numbers you added) — and it’s easy to show, by example, how that’s wrong.

Suppose we had five patients with ALS. Suppose four of those patients lived for one year following diagnosis, and one lived for eleven years. 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 11 = 15, and 15 / 5 = 3. So on average, people in this sample lived for three years... and only one of the five (20%) survived more than even one year. Given Dr Hawking’s experience of on the order of 50 years, he could offset about 25 patients who succumbed after one year, and still give us a three-year average.

The problem with the arithmetic mean is that it’s easily skewed by outliers. In the extreme example here, if 96% of the samples are 1 and 4% are 50, we get an average of 3 — three times the normal value. That means that with such a situation, the average is useless in giving us any reasonable prediction of what to expect. More generally, if the numbers are widely variable, the average doesn’t tell us anything useful. If we have nine patients who made it through 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 years, respectively, what do we tell the tenth patient who shows up? 5 years, on average, sure, but, really, we might as well tell him to take a wild guess.

Averages are useful when the values tend to cluster around the arithmetic mean, particularly when the number of samples is large. They’re also helpful in analyzing trends, when we look at the change in the average over time... but, again, we have to be careful that a new outlier hasn’t skewed the average. Sometimes we adjust averages to try to compensate for the outliers — for example, we might eliminate the top and bottom 5% of the samples before taking the average.

Another common error is to confuse the mean with the median. The latter is often used in financial reporting: median income, median purchase price for houses, and so on. The median is a completely different animal from the mean. It’s, quite simply, the middle value. List all the sample values in increasing order, and pick the one in the middle (or one of the two in the middle, if the number of values is even).

In the first example above,[1] if we write the values as 1, 1, 1, 1, 11, the median is the value in bold: 1. In the second example, we have 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, for a median of 5. You can see that in the first case, the median is not related to the mean, while in the second case it’s the same as the mean. It’s also the case that the mean (or average) is an artificial value that might not appear in the samples, whereas the median is, by definition, one of the sample values.

Also by definition, at least half the sample values are greater than or equal to the median (and at least half are less than or equal to it). In other words, Dr McCluskey’s statement would have been true (at least close enough) had he been talking about the median survival period, rather than the average. Medians are also less susceptible to skewing by outliers, as you can see from the first example.

But as the second example shows, when the numbers are all over the place, neither is of much use in predicting anything.

[1] My examples use small numbers of values for convenience. In reality, both mean and median require a fairly large sample size to be useful at all.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


What’s that rhyme?

Now that I have the file-count limit sorted out on the audio system in my car, it’s much better at playing songs in random order. Now I’m hearing Yes, Linda Ronstadt, Steely Dan, Toni Price, and Jackson Browne, and not just artists in the alphabetic A’s and B’s.

Thus, the other day I heard a song from Los Lobos’ great album The Neighborhood. The song that came on was the one that opens the album, Down on the Riverbed, and it struck me, as it has before, that there’s a slight oddness to the rhyme in the chorus. It goes like this (emphases mine):

Down on the riverbed,
Down on the riverbed,
Down on the riverbed,
I asked my lover for her h...

...for her h...

You want it to be head, don’t you? I certainly do. They set you up with bed thrice, and what rhymes with bed? Well, head, most assuredly.

Of course, it’s hand; Down on the riverbed, I asked my lover for her hand.

Trips my brain up every time I hear that song.

Friday, December 30, 2011



On NPR’s Morning Edition today was an item about a cable television channel called OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network. It seems that Oprah doesn’t have her usual golden touch on this one: the channel is almost a year old, and it hasn’t established much of a presence and following (yet?). I haven’t watched it, so I haven’t anything to say about its content. But, while OWN is a cute acronym and all that, I want to talk a bit about what a TV network is, and why this isn’t one. For younger readers, this will be a bit of history; for others, perhaps a trip through time and memories.

When I was small (and Christmas trees were tall)[1], television programs were broadcast over the airwaves, as FM radio signals. They had their own frequency bands, and the spectrum was divided into twelve channels: 2 through 6 on one frequency band, and 7 through 13 on another — for historical reasons, there was no channel 1. The allocations were made such that each channel had enough bandwidth to carry the audio and video at the desired quality, with enough extra at the edges to minimize interference between adjacent channels. And the television set had a dial to select the channel — a large-ish, round, twelve-position switch that adjusted the tuner to receive the desired one of the twelve channels.

A service area with a moderate population might have had only one or two active channels broadcasting within its range, back in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Larger areas, such as New York City, would have four or five, or even as many as six. The programs were all in black and white (actually many shades of grey), just like the old movies, though modern movies had long been in colour, of course.

Content was expensive to produce. Local stations would produce their own programming, but the budgets were necessarily low. So television took the network idea from radio: a network was a content provider that would distribute programming to its affiliates. The network would sign up stations, one per area, to take its content (including much of its advertising), and during certain times of the day those affiliate stations would air the network’s content. That way, everyone could get I Love Lucy, The Ed Sullivan Show, and Car 54, Where Are You?, and they knew when their favourite shows would be on.

And they knew what channels to find them on. Everyone in the New York City area knew that channel 2 was CBS, channel 4 was NBC, and channel 7 was ABC, and those were the three networks that existed at the time. The station affiliations and channels were different in different cities, but if you moved to Miami, you’d learn that CBS was on channel 4 instead of channel 2, and you could still find Ed Sullivan without trouble.

Each TV station still aired non-network programming — local news, locally produced shows (such as children’s shows, where local kids were in the audience and sometimes on stage), and so on. Also, they didn’t operate 24 hours a day. They would sign on in the morning and sign off at night, and would sometimes have off periods during the day. During the off times, if you tuned to the channel you would see either a test pattern (a fixed image broadcast by the station) or snow (random, changing black and white dots, the result of the television’s attempt to interpret the background noise as a signal; TV sets nowadays detect the lack of signal and show a solid blue or black screen).

Those twelve channels, 2 through 13, were in the VHF bands. In the 1950s, stations started broadcasting on 70 new channels, 14 through 83, in the new UHF band... only, they had a serious problem: most television sets couldn’t receive their signals. And there was little incentive for people in large markets to worry about this: they already had all the television they could want in New York City, for example, on the VHF channels. The UHF channels were mostly inhabited by local-only, non-network stations, which generally failed. But in 1961, a new law required that by 1965, all new televisions have UHF tuners. Most accomplished this by adding a second tuning dial; the first had thirteen positions — channels 2 through 13, and UHF — and the second would tune 14 through 83 in seventy very tiny clicks.

The new channels opened the path for new networks, such as expanded educational and public TV networks (in the 1970s), and Fox and spanish-language networks (in the 1980s). But there was still the concept of local stations that were affiliated with content-distribution networks.

People got used to the term network, and with the idea that a network is big, with broader, better content... while a station or channel is a small, local thing, with little content of interest. With the cable television boom came hundreds of channels with direct content — no local stations, no affiliates. Some of them are called channels, but some are called networks, though they really aren’t. The Oprah Winfrey Network certainly isn’t the only one. The Food Network is another example, and there are others.

The distinction mostly doesn’t matter, and it’s really only of historical interest. But the NPR item makes one significant point in this regard:

Gerbrandt says cable is such a different animal than broadcast. For starters, people can’t find OWN.

Indeed: with the real networks, we all knew where the broadcast stations were on the dial. Now, with cable, those same affiliate stations have their old places, with low channel numbers. If you want CBS, NBC, and ABC, look in those low numbers — they’re still 2, 4, and 7 in the New York City area. But where’s the Food Network? The Discovery Channel? Sy-Fy? OWN? You have to learn where they are, which means that you have to want them in the first place. And with hundreds of channels available, it’s not so likely that we’ll stumble across them as we go from channel to channel.

It’s tough to develop a following.

[1] Extra points if you know the reference.

Friday, December 23, 2011


Family values

I don’t refer often enough to the excellent blog Halfway There, by the pseudonymous Zeno, a community-college math teacher in California. Apart from having picked an amusing combination of names (a reference, of course, to Zeno’s Paradox), blogger Zeno writes interesting things about socio-political news, frequently calling the right-wingers on their bullshit.

Today’s entry is a perfect example, where he lampoons a feigned Think about the children! argument against running a front-page photo of lesbian sailors kissing. In response to a letter to the editor in the Sacramento Bee, which said, in part, this:

Did anyone consider that young children might be confused by the display on the front page?

The Bee has selfishly and disrespectfully usurped the rights of parents to choose where and when to have a thoughtful discussion, with their children, about homosexuality. Believe it or not, there are still some families whose values are not reflected in the type of photo that The Bee published; and they are neither intolerant nor filled with hate.

...Zeno has this to say:

I can’t help wondering how Jane’s children managed to grow old enough to be confused without Mommie Dearest having had that thoughtful discussion she values so highly. It’s not as though most toddlers spend any time perusing the pages of the newspaper. And why should even older children be upset by a glimpse of a same-sex couple kissing on the Bee’s front page? Have they not seen plenty of same-sex kissing among family members and close friends? Doesn’t grandma kiss mommy? Doesn’t mommy have BFFs from high school or college who hug her and smooch her whenever they meet?


She wants us to believe that people who object to displays of same-sex affection are neither intolerant nor filled with hate. But I don’t believe that. Not filled with hate? Maybe, but that’s not self-evident. Filled with intolerance? Definitely.

Indeed. But let’s be even more direct about showing the bigotry behind that letter. Let’s suppose that the photo had not been of two women kissing, but of a black man kissing a white woman. And let’s look at the letter with that shading:

Did anyone consider that young children might be confused by the display on the front page?

The Bee has selfishly and disrespectfully usurped the rights of parents to choose where and when to have a thoughtful discussion, with their children, about interracial couples. Believe it or not, there are still some families whose values are not reflected in the type of photo that The Bee published; and they are neither intolerant nor filled with hate.

Would anyone seriously believe her claim of tolerance and love in that case?

Believe it or not, there are still some families whose values are not reflected in images of warmth and affection. How sad for them.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


Highway 61 revisited

As I sit here with a Cesária Évora CD on in the house, I have an update to the car AV system issue, wherein it couldn’t stop playing Bob Dylan. That is, I found out why it’s playing a disproportionate amount of Dylan.

I noticed, as it played more songs, that it was not just playing a lot of Bob Dylan and the Beatles, but that it wasn’t playing anything beyond C in the alphabet. I have the files on the microSD organized in folders (directories) based on the artists and albums, so at the root level there’s a Bob Dylan folder, and that has sub-folders called Blonde On Blonde, Blood On the Tracks, Desire, and so on. In those folders are the MP3 files for the songs. I used the touch-screen interface to look in the folder of the current song, then went up to the artist level, and then to the root. I scrolled the list of artists, which should have gone from 10,000 Maniacs to Youssou N’Dour. But the list stopped somewhere near the end of the Cs.

Ha! There appears to be a limit to the number of directories. And with only around 1000 songs active, instead of the 4000 on the chip, the chances of Dylan had been multiplied by 4 for each play. No wonder I was getting so much! OK, I can work around that limit.

I took the chip into the house, put it in my computer, and wrote a script to pull all the files out to the root level, so there are no directories/folders. /Bob Dylan/Desire/03 Mozambique.mp3 became /Bob Dylan-Desire-03 Mozambique.mp3, and now I have 3984 files in the root directory, and no folders. Pop the chip back into the car system, and try it out.

Great! There’s a D... now an L... a G. Much better!

But it didn’t take too long to notice that it never played anything beyond L. I went to the list and scrolled again (and was happy that one can scroll backward, and it wraps around).

This time, it was easy to tell exactly: the files in each directory are numbered sequentially by the system, and with everything in the root directory I could see what the actual limit is: 2500 files, exactly. That’s horrid!

2500 files might be a reasonable limit when microSD chips only went up to 2 GB. But that was a while ago, and it’s perfectly easy to have 8000 files or more now, and higher-capacity chips are coming out all the time. It’s absolutely ridiculous to build in limits like this, considering how the technology is moving forward. Any reasonable file system has tossed such limits away long ago.

I’m trying to delete 1500 files from the microSD card, but it’s tough: the music on my computer is already selected from my far more extensive CD collection, and represents my favourites. How do I pick 1500 favourites to eliminate? The first 500 went gradually, but it wasn’t too awful. The second 500 were a real challenge. I’m still working on the last 500, and it’s very tough!

I’ll be writing to Pioneer, to express my displeasure and to see if there’s anything that can be done. And I guess I’ll go back to streaming the music from my BlackBerry, which still has all the songs, and for which there’s no such limitation.

Update, 4 p.m.: Pioneer's customer service gave me a prompt response, which confirms what I saw:

The maximum number of files on USB or SD that this unit will support is 2500. Currently there are no plans to change that specification. Your feedback is appreciated and will be passed along to product planning.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


Patterns in randomness: the Bob Dylan edition

The human brain is very good — quite excellent, really — at finding patterns. We delight in puzzles that involve pattern recognition... consider word-search puzzles, the Where’s Waldo stuff, and the game Set. We’re also great at giving patterns amusing interpretations, as we do when we fancy that clouds look like ducks or castles — or when we claim to see images of Jesus in Irish hillsides, pieces of wood, paper towels, and store receipts. Remember the cheese sandwich with the Virgin Mary on it, which sold on eBay for $28,000 in 2004? Miraculous, indeed.

It’s with the knowledge that we find apparent patterns in randomness that I approach this puzzling aspect of the random play feature of my car stereo. I’ve stuck in a microSD card that has about 4000 songs on it. I’ve put it on random play. And it appears to be playing songs in random order.

But it sure seems to be playing a lot of Dylan.

Bob, not Thomas. I like Bob Dylan, of course; that’s why I have quite a bit of him on the microSD card. But, for instance, on one set of local errands, it played two Dylan songs, something else, another Dylan, two other songs, then another Dylan. Four out of seven? Seems a bit odd.

Now, I know that if you ask a typical person which sequence is more likely to come up in a lottery drawing, 1-2-3-4-5, or 57-12-31-46-9, he will say not only that the latter is more likely, but that if the former came up he’d be sure something was amiss. In fact, they’re equally likely, and are as likely as any other pre-determined five-number sequence, but the one that looks like a pattern is one we think can’t be random. Similarly, it’s certainly possible to randomly pick four Dylan songs out of seven — or even four in a row, for that matter. And if there’s a bug in the algorithm that the audio system uses, why would it opt for Dylan, and not, say, Eric Clapton or the Beatles, both of which I also have plenty of on the chip?

So I played around with some numbers. Let’s make some simplifying assumptions, just to test the general question. Assume I have 20 songs from each artist, and a total of 4000 songs (and, so, 200 artists). If I play seven songs, how likely is it that two will be by the same artist?

It’s easier to figure out how likely it is that there won’t be repetitions. The first song can be anything. The likelihood that the second will be of a different artist than the first is (4000-20)/3999, about 99.5%. The likelihood that the third will differ from both of those is (4000-40)/3998. Repeat that four more times and multiply the probabilities: there’s a 90.4% chance of seven different artists in seven songs... meaning that there’s about a 9.6% chance of at least one repetition. Probably more likely than we might think.

Let’s look at Dylan, specifically. I have about 120 of his songs on there (3% of the total; maybe I should delete some, but that’s a separate question). What are the chances of having no Dylan in seven songs? No Dylan for the first is 3880/4000, 97% (makes sense: 3% chance of Dylan in any one selection). Continuing, no Dylan, still, for the second is 3879/3999. Repeat five more times and multiply: 71.3% chance of no Dylan, so there’s a 28.7% chance of at least one Dylan song if we play seven.

What about the chances of at least two Bob Dylan songs... a repetition of Dylan? Well, we figured out no Dylan above. Let’s figure out exactly one, and then add them. For the first to be Dylan and none of the others, we have 120/4000 * 3880/3999 * 3879/3998 * 3878/3997 * 3877/3996 * 3876/3995 * 3875/3994. About 2.5%. It’s the same for one Dylan in any other position — the numerators and denominators can be mixed about. So the chances of exactly one Dylan song out of seven is 2.5 * 7, or 17.5%. Add that to the chances of zero, 71.3 + 17.5 = 88.8%, so there’s an 11.2% chance of at least two Dylan songs in a mix of seven songs.

In other words, it’s a better than one in four chance that I’ll hear at least one Bob Dylan song, and a better than one in ten chance that I’ll hear at least two of them every time I take a 20- or 30-minute ride. Thrown in some confirmation bias, where I forget about the trips that had Clapton and the Beatles and Billy Joel and Carole King, but no Dylan, and I guess the system is working the way it’s supposed to.

But, damn, it plays a lot of Bob Dylan!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Hands-free is not enough

The other day, we heard that the U.S. NTSB would be proposing a nationwide ban on mobile phone use, and people were speculating that it’d increase sales and use of hands-free calling. I thought that would be odd, since a number of studies have made it clear that it’s mostly talking on your mobile phone that’s dangerous, whether it’s hands-free or not. There’s cognitive interference when you talk to someone who isn’t in the car with you, and having the device be hands-free only helps with the mechanical aspects, not with the cognitive ones, and those appear to be more important from a safety point of view.

And, as I expected, the proposed ban includes hands-free devices. Quoting from their news release of yesterday:

No call, no text, no update behind the wheel: NTSB calls for nationwide ban on PEDs while driving

December 13, 2011

Following today’s Board meeting on the 2010 multi-vehicle highway accident in Gray Summit, Missouri, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) called for the first-ever nationwide ban on driver use of personal electronic devices (PEDs) while operating a motor vehicle.

The safety recommendation specifically calls for the 50 states and the District of Columbia to ban the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices (other than those designed to support the driving task) for all drivers. The safety recommendation also urges use of the NHTSA model of high-visibility enforcement to support these bans and implementation of targeted communication campaigns to inform motorists of the new law and heightened enforcement.

According to NHTSA, more than 3,000 people lost their lives last year in distraction-related accidents, said Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman. It is time for all of us to stand up for safety by turning off electronic devices when driving.

No call, no text, no update, is worth a human life.

Note nonemergency use and other than those designed to support the driving task. There is no exception for hands-free devices in their recommendation.

The NTSB has no standing to force this; in the United States, the states make their own traffic rules. But Congress can back the recommendation with funding incentives, as they did with the now-defunct 55 MPH speed limit, and as they have done for laws requiring seat-belt use.

Friday, December 09, 2011


Rick Perry: stupid is as stupid does

In case you haven’t been following the current Intervents over the past few days, let me call your attention to a Rick Perry campaign ad that was posted to YouTube on Tuesday. It’s called Strong, and it features a confident and concerned Rick Perry, bringing a very important point to his voters. Copying the copy from Governor Perry’s YouTube page:

I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a Christian, but you don’t need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.

As President, I’ll end Obama’s war on religion. And I’ll fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage. Faith made America strong. It can make her strong again.

I’m Rick Perry and I approve this message.

As I look at it now, it has 2,711,916 views, 10,401 likes, and 428,954 dislikes (as you might expect, comments are disabled). The numbers are increasing all the time, of course, but the dislikes are doing so very rapidly, making it, as one blogger notes, the most hated video on YouTube. It has well surpassed that horrid Friday, Friday thing, which only has 256,752 dislikes, and has taken almost three months to accumulate them, not just three days.

There are also, of course, many parodies popping up (I’ll let you have the fun of searching for them), most beginning, I’m not ashamed to admit than I’m an atheist, but some getting rather sillier (I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a dinosaur.?). And many are pointing out that the Gov’s jacket bears a close resemblance to the one Heath Ledger wore in Brokeback Mountain, adding ironic silliness to the mix.

(The dislikes are up to 430,321 now....)

The parodies and the silliness are great fun, but let’s not forget that this is meant to be a serious campaign video by a serious candidate for President of the United States. Mr Perry is waning in the polls; still, he’s not a long shot or a dark horse. He was the front-runner for a while. (Have I worn out the horse-racing metaphors yet?)

Where on Earth does he come up with the idea that there’s some sort of war on religion going on, when the religious asshats have been strangling the rest of us for years? One would have to be completely in a land of fantasy to think that atheists are running things. The notion that our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school is just ridiculous on its face, and any quick look around us will easily expose that as the lie it is.

What’s more, few of us would even want to stop kids from doing those things on their own. What we want is not to have public schools and other public, tax-funded institutions promote religion and prayer. No one’s closing down private schools and churches, and no one’s telling kids they can’t say a personal prayer or wish Merry Christmas to their friends.

And the idea that President Obama, a professed church-going Christian, is leading such a war is simply beyond stupid.


I want to move to a country where you have to take an intelligence test to get in, even on a tourist visa.

Thursday, December 08, 2011


Car navigation and audio system

I have a new car (as of October), a Subaru Legacy. The new car has a Pioneer AVIC-X930BT navigation/audio system (I mentioned its anti-theft mechanism last week). After years of using maps and printed directions, or relying on my BlackBerry for the GPS task — it’s effective, but small and hard to use while one is driving — it’s good to have the nav system, with a nice, large touch-screen (the next model up also does voice-command activation).

I’m mostly happy with it, and only find two annoying quirks in the navigation system. The more irritating of the two is that there’s a safety disclaimer that I have to touch OK to dismiss every time I start up the system:


This Navi product is intended solely as a driving aid. Review instruction manual and select route before driving. Navi is not a substitute for your attentiveness, judgement, and care while driving or moving your vehicle. Always observe safe driving rules and driving laws, and follow road signs even if they contradict Navi’s instructions. By pressing OK key, you accept the license agreement in the instruction manual.

I get the issue here: there are a good many documented cases of people driving onto railroad tracks, going the wrong way on one-way roads, and other such because they blindly and stupidly followed (what they thought were) their GPS systems’ instructions. But, really, I ought to be able to accept that safety and license-agreement message once, and be done with it. Or if they must remind me periodically, how about once a month? Even weekly would be better than having to deal with it every time I start the car.

The other annoyance is that the positioning system doesn’t seem to understand reverse gear. When I pull up my driveway and into my garage, the system doesn’t know where I am with respect to the roads. When I start up again, back out, and head up the road, it thinks I’m on the next block, and remains confused about that for a few minutes, while it acquires the GPS satellites and sorts out its actual location. That’s mostly comical, because I don’t need the GPS location to be accurate when I’m near home. Still, it’s rather goofy.

The most interesting thing about the system is that it replaces the audio system in the car, and includes AM and FM radio, CD and DVD player (including video), bluetooth audio streaming from your smartphone, playing your iPod, playing Pandora or Aha from the Inernet via an iPhone app, and playing music or video files from a USB device or microSD card. It makes for quite the music system.

I had been streaming music from my BlackBerry, but there’s not really a need — microSD cards are very cheap these days. I got a new card and copied all my music onto it. Thousands of music files live with the car. Very nice.

But there’s a problem, caused by a combination of an odd software choice in the Pioneer system and what happens to the microSD card on my MacBook. When I first plugged the microSD card into the audio system and turned on random play, it played the first song, gave me a popup message saying that unplayable files would be skipped, picked a random next song, and turned the random-play feature off.

Unplayable files?

I investigated. There turn out to be three things causing this, all related to hidden files (files whose names begin with ., which are hidden by the Unix file system that’s used on the Mac):

  1. iTunes, which manages my music library on the Mac (and whence I copied the files), keeps a hidden file associated with each song, to keep track of metadata. When I copied the music directories, I copied all those as well.
  2. Spotlight, a Mac feature that helps you search for things, creates a hidden directory structure called .Spotlight-V100 when it indexes the drive. This happens just because you plugged the microSD card into the Mac.
  3. The operating system and the MacOS Finder create various hidden files and directories, both in the root of the drive and in its subdirectories: .Trashes, .fseventsd, and .DS_Store (that last exists in every subdirectory that’s been touched by the Finder).

I configured Spotlight not to index the microSD drive (which you can only conveniently do after it’s already done it), and then wrote a shell script to delete every file and directory whose name begins with . (and one had best be very careful about writing and running such a script). Every time I plug it into my Mac, I have to run the script on it just before I eject it when I’m done.

Now everything works great. The audio system no longer complains about unplayable files, and the random-play feature doesn’t get turned off. I find that truly an odd programming choice: not only to display the message (which is odd enough), but then to stop random play. But it’s also bad that MacOS treats removable media that way... it should assume that removable media formatted with FAT(32) will be used on non-Mac platforms, and not pollute it with Mac-specific stuff.

Monday, December 05, 2011


Subjunctively moody

In his After Deadline column last week, New York Times editor Philip Corbett criticizes some overly complex sentences, reminding Times writers that, while Times readers needn’t be coddled, meanings need to be clear. One of his suggested corrections refers to this: [...] and Ms. King, who said she would ensure that the program be smart and entertaining. Mr Corbett has this to say:

At the end, there’s no need for the subjunctive be. The original assertion was something like, I will ensure that the program is [or will be] smart and entertaining. So, with proper sequence of tenses, make it was or would be.

He’s right, but this is a tricky one. We don’t use the subjunctive mood[1] very often, so we’re not well versed in its use. Except for some common phrases, such as, So be it, and If I were king, the subjunctive has all but died out in speech and informal writing, and it’s uncommon even in formal writing nowadays. Spanish still uses it extensively (the rules for its use there aren’t the same as in English, though some are similar), but English, not so much.

And to top it all off, even when it is used we usually don’t notice: with notable exception of to be, most verbs use the same form for subjunctive and indicative in all but the third person singular. We may be using subjunctives, but we can’t tell.

A simple rule that many people remember is to use subjunctive with something that’s contrary to fact (as in the if I were king situation), but that only goes so far. In fact, it’s generally used not just for such conditionals, but also for demands, wishes, and desires. And that’s what makes it tricky with ensure.

A writer would correctly use subjunctive were he to say, Ms King said she would insist that the program be smart and entertaining. Be (subjunctive), not is (indicative), because of the demand. Ensure seems similar here: she insists that it be entertaining, so she will ensure that it be so. But no: she will ensure that it is so, or that it will be so. Assurance is not one of the situations where we use subjunctive mood. Why? Well, it just isn’t. Someone made these rules up a long time ago, and that’s that.

On the other hand, that should give us a clue as to why the rule is vanishing, n’est-ce pas?

[1] Yes, mood. Subjunctive is a mood, not a tense, nor a case, nor an aspect. The other grammatical moods in English are indicative and imperative.

Sunday, December 04, 2011


Metro Transit

Misspelled ad for Whole FoodsThe photo on the right (click it to enlarge it) is a shot of a Whole Foods advertisement on a Metro-North train. Their unriveled commitment to quality clearly doesn’t extend to spelling.

In other New York City transit news, on a Manhattan-bound L-train from Brooklyn last night, there was a fake pile of poop on one of the benches. Passengers all speculated on whether it was fake (no smell, too neat and regular), with assured pronouncements that it was. Still, no one tested it, and no one would sit within four feet of it.

Only in New York.

Friday, December 02, 2011


National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012

On Thursday, the U.S. Senate passed the National Defense Authorization Act, an annual bill that provides for continued operation of the U.S. military. But this year’s 680-page bill includes yet more civil rights violations sanctioned by our legislature. Here’s NPR’s Steve Inskeep introducing their report:

The senate last night passed a defense bill that includes controversial provisions for handling terrorism suspects. The bill would send most detainees into military custody, not into the hands of the FBI, and it would allow the U.S. government to hold some suspects indefinitely, without charge, without trial. Those ideas ran into strong opposition from national security experts across the Obama administration, setting the stage for a possible veto by the president.

About halfway through the NPR report is this:

Carrie Johnson (NPR): But some Democrats and civil liberties groups said that left up in the air whether U.S. citizens could be detained in this country indefinitely without charges. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, says there’s nothing wrong with taking a hard line against American terrorists.

Senator Graham: I’m just saying to any American citizen, if you wanna help Al Qaeda, you do so at your own peril. You can get killed in the process, you can get detained indefinitely, and when you’re being questioned and you say to the interrogator, I want my lawyer, the interrogator will say you don’t have a right to a lawyer, ’cause you’re a military threat.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: what Senator Graham and those who spout the same rhetoric are missing is that we’re dealing here not with adjudicated cases, but with accusations. The rights they’re threatening were put in place to protect Americans from improper accusations — unfair, unwarranted, trumped up, perhaps specifically intended to put away someone who’s turned out to be inconvenient.

Back in the old days of tyrannical rule, the king would accuse anyone of anything, and the accusation alone would be cause to lock the accused in a dungeon indefinitely, with no hope of help or justice. When we formed this country, we put together a system of rights and guarantees to prevent such abuse and to protect our people from that sort of thing.

And yet that’s exactly what Senator Graham and others want to put us back into: a situation wherein a government that wants to silence someone and make him disappear need only make an unsubstantiated accusation of working with terrorists, and that person can be whisked away by the military, held in secret forever, and denied access to anyone — no family, no lawyers, no advocates of any kind to help him refute what may well be false accusations. No charge of an actual crime and no evidence are necessary.

I agree with Senator Graham that we should take a hard line against people who wanna help Al Qaeda. I’m just not willing to take accusations as fact and throw away the protections we have against abuse, and neither should anyone who supports the tenets this country was founded on be willing to do so. By all means, arrest people suspected of working with terrorists. Then give them access to legal support, tell them what crimes they’re charged with, and have fair and public trials, just as we do with people accused of murder, rape, arson, and all other horrible crimes.

These provisions need to be removed from the bill, and President Obama must veto it until they are removed.

Thursday, December 01, 2011


Web-page mistakes

I don’t understand, sometimes, how people put together their web pages. Who really thinks that, say, pink text on a red background looks good? Seventeen different typefaces on one page? A background image that makes people’s eyes cross?

One can argue that those are all matters of taste, and, after all, à chacun, son goût. And anyway, those things are easy enough to fix: one can apply a custom style sheet right in the browser, and override all those size and color and font and background things that were specified in the web page. There are instructions and bookmarklets floating around on the web... just stick one in your browser’s bookmark bar, and then click it when you encounter a retch-inducing or simply unreadable web page.

But there are lots of web-page problems you can’t fix up in your browser, because it’s the people who put together their web pages who don’t understand, and it’s not just in matters of personal taste. Perhaps one of the most annoying of these is what I call the lazy thumbnail error.

You’ve encountered these, surely: you’ll be looking at a web site for a business or organization, and you’ll click on a page labelled The Christmas Party, or Our Staff... and the page will take forever to load. You can’t see why, though: the Our Staff page shows maybe 20 people, from the company president to the secretarial staff, each with a small photo, a name, and a short paragraph by way of a bio. No big deal here. The photos are all tiny, something on the order of 100 by 120 pixels, like my mug at the top of these pages. What’s the problem?

The problem is that the photos aren’t as small as they look, because the webmaster was lazy about creating thumbnails for the staff pics. She asked everyone to send her a snapshot, and she put them all up on the web page with HTML like this:

<img src="staffPics/jane.jpg" height=200 alt="Jane Smith">

There... that makes all the photos the same height, 200 pixels. If someone sent a larger one, it gets scaled down, nice and small. Makes for a uniform look, and the page looks great.

What the webmaster doesn’t understand is that the scaling is not done at the server, but in the user’s browser. When the browser loads the page, it sees all these IMG tags, and it requests each image URL (such as staffPics/jane.jpg, in the example above). But it has no way to tell the server that it’s only going to display it 200 pixels high, and the server has no way to know. If Jane sent a high-res portrait, eight megapixels huge, the whole thing gets sent to the browser. And then the browser has to do the scaling itself, when it renders the page.

If ten of the twenty staffies have sent large photos, that simple Our Staff page can wind up being tens or hundreds of megabytes in size, despite how tiny the headshots look in the browser. Plus, there’s a load on the browser, which has to store the full-sized images and resize them for rendering — you can sometimes see that effect when scrolling the page is sluggish.

The solution is for the webmaster to take the time to create images of the right size (or close to it) from the start. If someone sends you a 2400 x 3200 portrait, scale it down to 150 x 200 yourself, and just put that image on the web page (there are programs available for this, which make it easier to handle a lot of photos). If you want to make the larger one available for clicking, something like this will do:

<a href="staffPics/full/jane.jpg"><img src="staffPics/thumbs/jane.jpg" height=200 alt="Jane Smith"></a>

The height=200 still ensures that they’ll all be the same height, in case the thumbnails aren’t all exactly the same size (there’s no harm in letting the browser do a small amount of re-scaling). But now people won’t have to grab all those high-resolution photos unless they actually want to.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


A festive Chinese dish

Zucchini with garlic sauce, Chinese styleOn a recent trip to Shenzhen, China, two colleagues and I went to a restaurant for dinner and happened onto a dish that was splendid to look at and delicious to eat. As we looked at the menu, the picture caught my eye: stripes of red, green, yellow, and brown. What is this?, I asked my Chinese-speaking colleague. He asked the waitress, and then told me it was eggplant underneath, and the stripes were red pepper, garlic, and such. We ordered it, and we all loved it. I decided I’d try making something like it at home.

I did that the other day. I wanted to make it vegetarian, so I replaced the ground pork (the brown strip) in the original with chopped brown mushrooms. I had a bunch of zucchini in the ’fridge, so I used that instead of eggplant for the base. And I made up a Chinese sauce on the fly — any tasty brown sauce will do, so try something based on hoisin, or oyster sauce, or black bean sauce....

Here’s the result (click the image above to see how it looked):

Vegetable with garlic sauce, festively presented


About four zucchini or Chinese eggplant, sliced (see instruction 5)
Chopped fresh garlic, about 3 tablespoons
Hot red chilis, sliced or coarsely chopped, about 1/4 cup
Chopped brown mushrooms, about 1/2 cup
Chopped fresh cilantro, 1/4 cup or so
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
2 teaspoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1/4 cup water


  1. Get some rice started, if you want to serve rice with this. No, that’s not in the ingredient list.
  2. Using a little mild cooking oil, sauté the garlic on low heat for a few minutes to soften. You want the colour, so don’t brown it. Set the lightly cooked garlic aside in a small bowl.
  3. Do the same for the chilis, setting them aside in a separate bowl.
  4. Sauté the mushrooms, and cook them until they get a nice, dark colour and lose much of their water. Set them aside in a third bowl.
  5. Mix the hoisin, soy, sesame oil, and water, and set that aside. Alternatively, make up whatever sort of Chinese brown sauce you like.
  6. I like to slice the zucchini or Chinese eggplant (the long, thin ones; don’t use the big fat ones we usually find in American stores) by cutting them in half lengthwise, then slicing each half crosswise on a diagonal, about 1/4 inch thick. That makes slices that are a good size and shape, and that look nice. However you do it, slice your vegetable.
  7. Get a large pan nice and hot, with a couple of tablespoons of mild cooking oil in it. Make sure the pan is hot before you add the vegetable.
  8. Sauté your sliced vegetable until it’s almost cooked — it should be tender, but not falling apart.
  9. Add the sauce and finish cooking, letting the sauce reduce.


  1. Transfer the vegetable to a nice serving plate, and spread it evenly over the plate.
  2. Using the chilis, garlic, cilantro, and mushrooms, cover the vegetable with stripes (see the photo).
  3. Take a picture.
  4. When everyone’s ready to tuck into it, use chopsticks or a spoon to mix it all around. You’ve destroyed the lovely look, but now it’s all about the taste.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Stan and George

Today gave us one great musician, and took away another, both of whom I’ve written about in these pages before. Canadian singer/songwriter Stan Rogers was born on this day in 1949. English singer/songwriter George Harrison died ten years ago today. Go back to my earlier posts for my comments about them. Here, just a quotation or two from their songs.

Watch the field behind the plow
Turn to straight, dark rows
Feel the trickle in your toes
Blow the dust-cake from your nose
Hear the tractor’s steady roar
Oh, you can’t stop now
There’s a quarter section, more or less, to go

And it figures that the rain
Keeps its own sweet time
You can watch it come for miles
But you guess you’ve got a while
So east the throttle out a hair
Every rod’s a gain
And there’s victory in every quarter mile

— Stan Rogers, The Field Behind the Plow, 1981

Don’t have to be ashamed of the car I drive
        [The end of the line]
I’m just glad to be here, happy to be alive
        [The end of the line]
It don’t matter if you’re by my side
        [The end of the line]
I’m satisfied

Well it’s all right, even if you’re old and grey
Well it’s all right, you still got something to say
Well it’s all right, remember to live and let live
Well it’s all right, the best you can do is forgive

Well it’s all right, riding around in the breeze
Well it’s all right, if you live the life you please
Well it’s all right, even if the sun don’t shine
Well it’s all right, were going to the end of the line

— George Harrison, et al, The End of the Line, 1988

Sunday, November 27, 2011


Happy birthday, Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix was born on this day in 1942, in Washington — the state, not the city. He died far too young, at 27.

And so castles made of sand
Fall in the sea

— Jimi Hendrix, 1967

Thursday, November 24, 2011



The navigation system in my car has an anti-theft feature that’s interesting, in that it relies entirely on a sort of herd immunity. The system is installed in the car’s dashboard, so it’s somewhat involved to pull it out. Easy for a pro, to be sure, but I mean that it’s not like one of those that sits on top, and one can just grab it and run.

When it’s first powered on after installation, the owner has the option of setting a password. If a password is set and the unit is ever disconnected from the battery, as it would be if it were stolen (or, of course, when the car battery is replaced, or when servicing the car requires disconnecting the battery), the password has to be entered in order for the device to be used again. The only way to recover from a forgotten password is to have the manufacturer reset the system — and they will, one presumes, take some measures to ensure that you hadn’t simply boosted it.

The interesting thing about this mechanism is that there’s no way for a thief to know whether or not a password is set. This anti-theft feature does nothing to actually prevent theft, but only to prevent the use of the system after it’s stolen. That’s only a deterrent if the thief knows two things: that this model has this feature and that almost all owners set a password (so that the likelihood of stealing a usable unit is too low to be worth the trouble).

Setting a password does absolutely nothing for your own device’s security — once it’s stolen, no thief will come put it back when he finds that he can’t use it nor sell it. Rather, we all depend on the widespread knowledge, at least among thieves, that everyone sets one. If I opt out, I’m covered by the rest of you. But if too many people opt out, then no one’s unit is safe.

And there is a big down side to setting a password: when your battery’s disconnected for service, if you’ve forgotten the password (which you only used once, maybe several years ago) your nav system becomes a brick.

Perhaps all in-dash navigation systems use this mechanism, and thieves are well aware of that (and new thieves soon will be). I wonder, though, how many owners choose not to set a password.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Degrees of separation

New Scientist tells us about Facebook’s analysis of the friend relationships in their social network. Only four degrees of separation, says Facebook, goes the New Scientist headline. Here’s their summary:

A few months ago, we reported that a Yahoo team planned to test the six degrees of separation theory on Facebook. Now, Facebook’s own data team has beat them to the punch, proving that most Facebook users are only separated by four degrees.

Facebook researchers pored through the records of all 721 million active users, who collectively have designated 69 billion "friendships" among them. The number of friends differs widely. Some users have designated only a single friend, probably the person who persuaded them to join Facebook. Others have accumulated thousands. The median is about 100.

To test the six degrees theory, the Facebook researchers systematically tested how many friend connections they needed to link any two users. Globally, they found a sharp peak at five hops, meaning that most pairs of Facebook users could be connected through four intermediate people also on Facebook (92 per cent). Paths were even shorter within a single country, typically involving only three other people, even in large countries such as the US.

The world, they conclude, just became a little smaller.

Well, maybe. There are a lot of things at play here, and it’s not simple. It is interesting, and it’s worth continuing to play with the data, but it’s not simple.

They’re studying a specific collection of people, who are already connected in a particular way: they use Facebook. That gives us a situation where part of the conclusion is built right into the study. To use the Kevin Bacon comparison, if we just look at movie actors, we’ll find closer connections to Mr Bacon than in the world at large. Perhaps within the community of movie actors, everyone’s within, say, four degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon. I don’t know any people in the movie industry directly, but I know people who do, so there’s two additional degrees to get to me. We can’t look at a particular community of people and generalize it to those outside that community.

There’s also a different model of friends on Facebook, compared with how acquaintance works in the real world. For some people, they’re similar, of course, but many Facebook users have lots of friends whom they don’t actually know. Sometimes they know them through Facebook or other online systems, and sometimes they don’t know them at all. Promiscuous friending might or might not be a bad thing, depending upon what one wants to use one’s Facebook identity for, but it skews studies like this, in any case.

People would play with similar things in the real-life six degrees game. Reading a book by my favourite author doesn’t count, but if I passed him on the street in New York City, does that qualify? What about if we went into the same building? If he held the door for me? If I went to his book signing, and he shook my hand and signed my copy of his book? Facebook puts a big e-wrinkle on that discussion.

But then, too, it’s clear that with blogs and tweets and social networking, we have changed the way we interconnect and interact, and we have changed how we look at being acquainted with people. I know people from the comments in these pages, and from my reading and commenting on other blogs. Yes, I definitely know them, and some to the point where I call them friends in the older, pre-social-network sense. But some I’ve never met face to face, nor talked with by voice.

So, yes, the world probably is a little smaller than it used to be. It didn’t just get that way suddenly, of course; it’s been moving in that direction for a while. Everything from telephones and airplanes to computers and the Internet have been taking us there.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


IBM will get a new CEO

In my old company’s news: IBM has announced that Ginni Rometty will take over as President and CEO in January. From the IBM announcement:

Armonk, NY, October 25, 2011 — The IBM board of directors has elected Virginia M. Rometty president and chief executive officer of the company, effective January 1, 2012. She was also elected a member of the board of directors, effective at that time. Ms. Rometty is currently IBM senior vice president and group executive for sales, marketing and strategy. She succeeds Samuel J. Palmisano, who currently is IBM chairman, president and chief executive officer. Mr. Palmisano will remain chairman of the board.

That Ms Rometty is IBM’s first female CEO is still remarkable, though IBM has long been more progressive than most large corporations in its promotion of women to executive positions, women such as Ellen Hancock, Linda Sanford, Jeannette Horan, Harriet Pearson, and Maria Azua have held Vice President positions in the company, and I watched some of them, including Ginni Rometty, move up from mid-level to Vice President during my time in IBM.

I have every expectation that Ms Rometty will be good for IBM, and I look forward to seeing how the company does under her leadership.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


It’s been a while

I’ve noted before that my high-school friend Bill Irwin found these pages some while go, and we’ve reconnected. Such are the benefits of social networks, including blogs, as well as, yes, Twitter and Facebook, if you can accept those. I’ve also noted that after five years of mostly daily blogging, I decided to back off starting in February, cutting back to every two or three days instead.

About a week and a half ago, Bill posted a comment to my most recent entry here. The entry is perhaps fittingly titled Don’t make promises... [you can’t keep]; fitting because my promise of two or three blog entries a week has not been kept — that most recent post is dated 7 September, and today is 25 October.

I didn’t publish Bill’s comment, because I wanted to promote it to a top-level entry. And note that it took me a week and a half to get to that. Here’s what he said:

Alright, Leiba, I’ve had enough. You inspired me to start out on my own blog and now you’ve stopped your own. Dammit, what gives? Gimme some feedback, dude, I don’t won’t to lose contact with you after all these many years...

Mea culpa; mea maxima culpa. First, I’ll say that anyone I’ve (re-)connected with through these pages will not be lost: you know how to contact me, I know how to contact you, and we can stay in touch.

That said, I do want to keep writing here, and I do intend to. It’s clear that once I gave up the discipline of daily, I lost the push to do it altogether; it’s been too easy to turn an every so often commitment into no commitment at all. I might have to re-think how I get motivated to post here. Because I do have a number of things set aside to say, but I haven’t made the time to say them.

And I won’t, probably, for the next few weeks either. I’ll try to get something out here and there, but I’m in the middle of a batch of (mostly business) travel. I was at the Internet Identity Workshop last week; I’m in Paris for the Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group this week. And the travels continue until I get back from the IETF meeting in Taipei on 18 November.

For now, I’ll post, below a panorama of the view from my hotel room, looking north from Montparnasse (click to enlarge). The major buildings are, left to right, Tour Montparnasse (Montparnasse Tower, the black office tower on the far left), Hôtel National des Invalides (the gold-dome, a military museum and hospital/residence for disabled veterans), Observatoire de Paris (the white dome), Basilique du Sacré Cœur (Sacred Heart Basilica, on the hill in the far rear), Abbaye du Val de Grâce, and Hôtel du Panthéon (the domes in the foreground).

Paris panorama from Montparnasse

Wednesday, September 07, 2011


Don’t make promises...

It’s that time again: U.S. presidential elections are in a bit more than a year, so, of course, furious campaigning has started. The religious-fanatic morons are telling us how God is guiding them, but they’re just insane. Rick Perry, after officially praying for rain, is promising to end abortion while his state burns from the endless drought.

On the more sane side, yesterday I heard Mitt Romney on the radio, promising to eliminate taxes on investments for the middle class.

Of course, it was the same in the lead-in to the 2008 election, as it’s the same every time. Then, all the candidates, including the current president, promised to do this or that with tax reform, to create their version of health-care coverage, and so on.

Here’s the thing: they are all making promises they can’t keep. None of this is up to them.

Congress controls the budget. Congress levies taxes, and is responsible for any changes to the tax system. It took legislation to enact the health-care bill, which looked little like what Mr Obama (or anyone else) had promised solemnly and fervently.

That’s how our system of checks and balances, our tripartite government, works. The president can do certain things with executive orders. He can make appointments according to his own plans. He can call on executive agencies to do rule-making magic in support of his policies. He can limit Congress with vetos. But it’s the legislative branch that controls much of what the executive candidates like to promise. And even for the other things, the legislature can make laws that negate or forbid executive orders, can refuse to confirm appointees, and can override vetos. And it’s they who give the executive agencies their rulemaking authority in the first place, and they can change its scope or take it away. All overseen by the judiciary, of course, which will rule on disputes and can be predictable or full of surprises.

George Pataki was elected governor of New York in 1994, largely on his promise to restore the death penalty in the state. When he took office in January, he did just that... and the state’s highest court promptly declared the current death-penalty law to be unconstitutional. The State Assembly refused to address it with new legislation, and Mr Pataki’s campaign promise amounted to nothing.

To the extent that we believe campaign promises at all, we need to take them with large grains of salt, and consider whether the things the candidates are promising would actually be within their purview when they take office. If not, they can try to influence things, but the legislative and judicial branches are not often easy to steer.

It seems the songs we’re singing
Are all about tomorrow,
Tunes of promises you can’t keep.
Every moment bringing
The love I can only borrow,
You’re telling me lies in your sleep.

Do you think I’m not aware of what you’re saying,
Or why you’re saying it?
Is it hard to keep me where you want me staying?
Don’t go on betraying it.
Don’t make promises you can’t keep.

— Tim Hardin, Don’t Make Promises (1966)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Where does the money go?

Microsoft’s Raymond Chen usually blogs about interesting things about Windows. He also throws in assorted items about other things, and today he points to some old articles about how professional athletes go broke, despite multi-million-dollar salaries.

One of the articles is an NPR story from May, and it contains this wonderful quote at the beginning:

They see [their salaries] as infinite, like it doesn’t end, like they can’t spend it all, says accountant Scott Bercu, who has handled the finances of professional baseball and basketball players. But, if you get $5 million a year, by the time you get done paying your agent and taxes, you have $2 million left to spend. That goes very quickly.

That goes very quickly, indeed, hm. I should say so! Certainly the last couple of million I saw went away before I even noticed it.

The point of the story is that unlike most highly paid people, these athletes aren’t hired for their business sense, and managing money is, let’s say, not their long suit... and, so, naturally, when they come into enormous salaries, they do what they’ve always done with money: spend it all. They need, the story says, education — just as they get training in playing their sport, they need training in money management.

I don’t know; I find this really hard to accept. Basic, rank stupidity just isn’t something I have much tolerance for, and most people don’t have to be told that even large quantities of limited resources are still limited. It’s hard to have sympathy for someone who’s paid five million dollars, only has two million left after some necessary expenses, and then finds that the two million just goes very quickly.

Maybe it’s just schadenfreude, but, no, I have no sympathy at all.

Saturday, August 20, 2011


The race for prosperity

Paul Krugman writes in the New York Times about how populations shifts and lower wages can appear to create jobs locally, but notes that it doesn’t translate into prosperity and doesn’t scale to a nationwide job plan. I agree with his analysis. But I have another question, which I’ll introduce in a sort of roundabout way.

A friend of mine once commented about arcade-game scores. Typically, when you hit a target in an arcade game, you score thousands of points — maybe 1000 for this, 5000 for that, and 10,000 for a big target — resulting in final game scores in the hundreds of thousands, and, for top scorers, in the millions.

Is that really any different from having the targets give you, say, 1, 5, and 10 points, with final scores in the hundreds, or maybe the low thousands? Everything is relative, isn’t it? If we peel three zeroes off of everyone’s score, all players still rank against each other in the same way. It may be a psychological thing to have a score over a million, but in comparison to other players, does it matter in real terms?

Put another way, does adding zeroes to everyone, equally amount any real improvement. The numbers are bigger, but is anyone better off than before?


Now, is it the same with wages, prices, and cost and quality of living?

Were I to get a 10% raise, I’d be happy, of course. It certainly feels great to bring in 10% more money. And, hey, my co-workers are good at what they do also, so they deserve 10% more as well, don’t they? And if my boss is going to give us all 10% more pay, he’ll want that for himself as well.

Before we know it, lots of people are getting 10% raises. How does the company afford to do that? The folks controlling the profits want their 10% too, of course. So that means that prices have to go up. Now the people who work at other businesses, affected by rising prices at the ones that are giving out 10% raises, need wage hikes as well — they want to continue to afford the products and services they’re used to buying.

At some point, everything — everyone’s wages, as well as the prices of everything from food to fuel, housewares to housing to haircuts — is up 10%.[1] And, of course, I’m still doing a great job and I deserve a raise... and the process repeats.

But is anyone better off? Does it matter, when this all accumulates for some years, whether I earn $10,000 a year and a dinner for two costs $5... or I earn $100,000 a year and a dinner for two goes for $50? If renting an apartment has also gone from $200/month to $2000 in that time, and gas, which used to cost 40 cents a gallon, is now $4, has anything changed in real terms? Despite the extra zero in my salary, the extra zeroes in the prices mean that my buying power is the same as it was. And if everyone has gotten that added zero, we’re all just keeping up with one another.

Nothing has changed.

I’m better off for a short time after getting my raise, until everything catches up to me. And that’s assuming I’m on the leading edge of the cycle; the people on the trailing edge of the cycle are always behind, and only catch up at the end, just in time for things to start moving away from them again soon.

The economic cycle is a zero-sum game, at least for the vast majority of the population. It will only ever be the people in control of the top who will make out. The rest of us place ourselves somewhere else in the hierarchy, some of us better off than others, and then, for the most part and with only small variations and jockeying, we’re all just running a perpetual race on stationary treadmills.

[1] In fact, since the people getting the profits also want their raises, the prices need to go up by 10% to cover our raises, plus more to increase the profits. And since our suppliers want raises too, and are raising their prices, our prices have to go up even more to account for that. So the cycle is more complicated than this, but the point is the same.

Saturday, August 13, 2011



Daniel Grayling Fogelberg would have turned 60 today, had he not left us at the age of 56, taken by prostate cancer. His home town, Peoria, Illinois, dedicated a memorial garden to him in its Riverfront Park last year.

I first came across Dan Fogelberg’s music with his second album, Souvenirs, in 1974 — it’s playing on my stereo as I write this. His subsequent Captured Angels and Nether Lands stay together in my mind as my two favourites; I can’t choose between them. He’s probably best known, though, for songs from Phoenix and The Innocent Age.

This song, which he wrote for his father and recorded on The Innocent Age, seems appropriate to dedicate to Dan today:

I thank you for the music and your stories of the road.
I thank you for the freedom when it came my time to go.
I thank you for the kindness and the times when you got tough.
And, papa, I don’t think I said I love you near enough.

The leader of the band is tired and his eyes are growing old,
But his blood runs through my instrument and his song is in my soul.
My life has been a poor attempt to imitate the man.
I’m just a living legacy to the leader of the band.

— Dan Fogelberg, from Leader of the Band

Monday, July 25, 2011


Inventing the Internet

I’m in Québec City this week for the IETF meeting. A group of us were having dinner last evening, and at the end of the meal, as we were paying, the waitress asked us what we were all in town for. We told her were were at a meeting to work on standards for how things talk to each other on the Internet.

So she tells us about a crazy lady who comes in the restaurant every afternoon. The lady claims to have invented a bunch of things, and one thing she says is that she invented the Internet. After someone makes the required Al Gore joke, I say, well, to tell you the truth, no one at this table qualifies but we do actually have some people in our group who actually did invent the Internet. She says It’s one person who did it?, and we say no, maybe eight or ten or so... and at least four of them really are here this week.

Thursday, July 14, 2011


Number 2 and trying harder?

Yahoo news notes that LinkedIn is now the number 2 social network, behind, of course, Facebook. Brent Hailpern has an amusing way of pointing out what that means, really:

In related news, Beta is now the No. 2 video tape format after VHS.

Indeed, at what point is number 2 so far behind that it simply doesn’t matter?

In this case, LinkedIn isn’t really even relevant: its focus is entirely different from Facebook’s, and one wouldn’t really say that they compete with each other. This is really saying that MySpace has fallen so far back that it’s even gone below LinkedIn.

But another point is that the newcomer, Google+, is way down there at number 4 or lower. It’s in beta, of course, but, well, that’s just Google, where pretty much everything is in perpetual beta. But Google+ is aiming to be a Facebook competitor. Is there any hope? Should they bother? Shouldn’t they put their resources where they might do more good? Won’t Google+ just go the way of Google Wave?

It certainly happens that something new comes from way, way back there and pushes its way to the front. That can sometimes be due to the prominence of the company backing it, as happened when Microsoft Internet Explorer took over the world, to the dismay of Netscape (Who?). Google certainly has a prominent, powerful position, but it seems unlikely that that alone would bump Facebook out of the number 1 spot, or even seriously threaten to.

The other way for a newbie to move up is by providing important improvements over what’s already out there. Facebook’s recent partnership with Skype gives it immunity from Google Voice, but Google is marketing Google+ as having better privacy than Facebook — and, &deity knows, the latter has had a great deal of bad press for its handling of privacy issues and controls.

So, is Google+ a better social-networking choice from a privacy standpoint? We have one datapoint so far, and it doesn’t look good: the folks at F-Secure, a Finnish anti-malware company, note that as part of the Google+ rollout, Google will be deleting all private profiles, thus requiring you to make your profile public if you want to keep it. What’s more, they’ve done a lot of the same things that Facebook has done, quietly making new things public and/or enabled by default, so you really have to keep on top of things to be sure you avoid information leaks.

That doesn’t sound like an improvement to me.