Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Smart lawyers will kill smart cars

John Tierney has an article in Today's N. Y. Times about a promising technology that would be near the top of my all time wish list ... cars that drive themselves. I won't repeat the details in the article, but the gist is that smart cars would be able to drive anywhere, handle the most crowded road conditions without slowing down, park themselves after dropping off the passengers, etc. As someone who lives in the Boston area, I think this would be a monumental breakthrough!

If such cars replaced human-driven ones, the number of traffic accidents would drop to near 0, and the traffic injury and fatality rate would do likewise. Of course, the cars would have to be able to react not only to the road on which they're driving, and to other cars, but to reckless pedestrians, bicyclists, and others who continually try to challenge the laws of physics. Still, these cars show great promise.

Hower, Tierney errs in writing: Smart cars will never be infallible, but they don’t have to be. They just have to be better than the drivers who now cause more than 90 percent of traffic accidents and kill a million of their fellow humans per year.

Sadly, he fails to account for the lawsuits that will make smart cars economically unfeasible for the manufacturers. Even if there's only one traffic fatality per year, the family of that one
victim will sue that car's maker out of business.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Pull up your sox!

I have to digress from my usual (well, unusual, lately) diatribes on technology to comment on the Boston Red Sox. I'm a transplanted New Yorker. I went to college in the Boston area, moved back to New York, and then re-settled in the Boston area 5 years later. In all that time, I never once watched a baseball game on TV. In fact, I never watched any professional sports on TV. I had been to a couple of baseball and basketball games, but that was mainly as a social activity. I don't think I understood the games, and frankly, I could not have cared less.

Then came the 1986 playoffs and world series. It was impossible to avoid them. They were everywhere. No suburban restaurant or cafe was so small as to lack a TV showing the game. That was my first exposure to this peculiar addiction to the Red Sox.

Baseball, like all professional sports, is theater. Let me say that again: BASEBALL IS THEATER. In fact, it's theater at it's most elemental. There are obvious protagonists (i.e., your team) and antagonists (the other team), there are carefully orchestrated acts composted of strophes and antistrophes, each of which contains three outs and zero or more hits, runs, etc. It's highly formalized theater.

And like all good theater, and indeed, all good storytelling, your involvement depends on your liking the protagonists. They don't have to be heroic or admirable. Shakespeare's Richard III or Macbeth were certainly no paragons of virtue. But they are likable. And this means we take pleasure in watching them, and actually experience vicarious tension and release along with their actions and reactions. This is what makes theater entertaining.

I mention all this partly in response to Will Leitch's column, Death to the Underdog, on the New York Times Web site . Leitch says

Red Sox fans don’t have to be participants in some sort of Greek tragedy anymore. Being a fan is not a three-act play.
He's missed the point. It's a nine-act play. Otherwise, you might as well just read the box scores.

And the Boston Red Sox are theater par excellence. For one thing, they're likable precisely because they're not straight-laced, pin-striped automatons such as Johnny Damon became upon signing with the New York Yankees. They're wacky. Their hairstyles and rituals are outrageous, almost comic. There's a bit of Emmett Kelly about the way Manny Ramirez wears a uniform, and an almost Lucy-like frenzy to Francona's rocking while chewing what must be a wad of gum bigger than his head.

But beyond that, the Sox are likable precisely because of their penchant for coming in second. They're the ultimate runners-up. They try harder. They consistently perform brilliantly almost to the end of daylight savings time, and then implode. The cliche "Everybody loves a winner" is wrong! Everybody loves a loser. Think of Charlie Chaplin, or Charlie Brown. Think of Lucy or Seinfeld or Frazier. Of course everybody loves Raymond. He's another perennial loser. These are the characters we come back to watch again and again, always wondering "Will they surprise us? Will they make it this time?"

Of course, even the losers have to win once in a while, to keep our interest.

Go, Red Sox!

Monday, October 1, 2007

What's That Thing?

Apple has extended its line of portable music players, so it now includes the barely visible iPod Shuffle, the slightly larger iPod Nano, the downright clunky iPod Classic, and the latest arrival, the iPod That-Looks-Like-An-iPhone.

This last member is, theoretically, designed to exploit all the cool technology of the iPhone in a thing that plays music. Of course, we know the real purpose is to make your friends think you're important enough to need an iPhone, when in reality you're a loser who needs AC/DC pumping into his head to consider himself (or herself) conscious.

If I built a gadget that combines music, TV and Web browsing into one appliance, I would not call it a music player. But the iPod moniker has that connotation ... it's a portable music player. Apple has been trying to expand that concept, adding first video and now Web browsing, but I think most people see the iPod as this century's Walkman.

In general, the term computer will become obsolete, as everything will be an intelligent appliance of some sort ... media players, communicators ("Kirk out"), toasters, etc. It's not clear yet whether we'll need a whole new vocabulary to refer to these intelligent devices (e-viewer, e-toaster, etc.), or whether we'll simply change our definitions of the old terms (a "TV" is a flat-panel, cable/satellite-ready, multi-input device, right?). But if we're going to coin new terms, let's at least make them interesting. Pod? If an iMac is an Internet-enabled Macintosh, and an iPhone is an Internet-enabled phone, than an iPod is an Internet-enabled ... what, pod?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

What's Design?

Design is not one activity. For a designer creating a brochure, or a sign, or a Web site or whatever, there are a number of stages in the process. Starting out, the main activity is information design, a buzzword that's gaining a lot of ground, without a clearly defined meaning. This term is used primarily in the context of Web site design, but it applies to all areas of visual design. Really, it's just what the name implies: figuring out what information is to be conveyed by the Thing That Is Designed (TTID). If the TTID is a map, will it be printed? How big will it be? What area does it show? How is it oriented? What reference information (scale of miles, longitude and latitude lines, analemma, etc.) must be included? These questions are addressed before we actually get to what is commonly thought of as design.

In fact, most people think of design as the art or craft of choosing fonts, colors, illustrations, etc. to make something look attractive. In fact, that's the last bit of work to be done. Before we get to that, the questions of what information is to be imparted, and how can the visual arrangement convey or enhance the transmission of that information.

Consider different problems:

1) Design a subway map for a city.
2) Design an ad for a soft drink.

In the first case, the primary purpose of the design is to inform. People who look at the map will want to know what subways to take, where to get on and off, whether any transfers are necessary, etc. Typically, the toughest problem in such a case is legibility .... how to get so much information onto the page, and still make it understandable. If you superimpose the subway routes over a geographic map of the city, it's relatively easy to see where the stops are located relative to other landmarks. On the other hand, if you simply the subway routes to straight lines and arcs, the connections and relationships between the routes, and the sequences of stops on each route, are easier to read. That's a design trade-off.

In the soft drink ad, on the other hand, the design is much more about persuasion than information. You could simply create a poster with the drink's ingredients and nutritional information, but unless there was something really unique and sensational about these, it would probably not be a big seller. You'll probably end up with something that uses photographs of people living the wonderful, exuberant lifestyle that only drinkers of this beverage can enjoy. If you're also designing the packaging for the soft drink, you'll want to make sure that is harmonious with the advertising, in that both send a consistent message about the product.

Oops. I'm out of time. More later.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


A conversation I had recently reminded me of some views I've long held on the subject of user interfaces, or UIs. For most people, the term UI, or GUI (graphical user interface), conjures up images of dialog boxes, choosing fonts and colors, and deciding what a piece of software should look like.

These are part of the process, but the real user interface is the conceptual, or cognitive, model that is instilled in the user. This model dictates the user's understanding of what data is being presented and manipulated, and sets the user's expectations about what effect different actions will have. Every single feature of the design of a product must establish and reinforce that conceptual model.

Consider the difference between draw programs and paint programs. Both are designed to let users draw pictures on the computer. Yet the underlying representations of those pictures are completely different. A draw program allows the user the define geometric representations of shapes, which can then be displayed in various colors, patterns, etc. Adobe Illustrator is perhaps the best known of these, though there are plenty of others.

A paint program, on the other hand, stores everything as pixels ... tiny dots of colors arranged like tiles in a mosaic. The user's actions will affect the color of individual pixels, but once these are drawn, there's no concept of shapes, underlying geometry, etc. Pictures from your digital camera fall into this category, since they're just made up of colored dots recorded by the camera. Adobe Photoshop is the best known example of this.

Each of these models, draw vs. paint, or vector vs. bitmap, has some features and some limitations that the other does not have. So, over time, the more successful programs have tried to shoehorn in various features that expand the capabilities at the expense of keeping the model pure. Photoshop has paths, and text, and other non-pixel data. Illustrator has smudging and blurring and other effects that use pixel-level manipulation.

Adding features is not a bad thing, but complicating the models makes it much harder to learn and use the software. Sure there are plenty of people who become expert in Photoshop or Illustrator or both, but it requires a lot of dedication and time to do so. The conceptual models are not simply anymore, so the user interface is more complicated.

Later, I'll talk more about these draw and paint models, and suggest some other ways to look at the problem of representing pictures.

Thursday, August 2, 2007


The commonplace greeting, "What's up?" is evolving in two directions at once. The monosyllabic mob have shortened it to simply " 'Sup?" an interrogative that sounds remarkably like a dinner invitation to my aged ears. On the other hand, the apostrophe averse favor the edgier "What up?" sans contraction.

Since I'm a uniter, not a divider, I propose the convergence of these two forms, in the interest of preventing further splintering of our language. I suggest we all adopt "Tup?" as the preferred form of this largely rhetorical question.

Similarly, plying the same metonymical trend that leads to calling business people "suits," we could refer to doctors as "scrubs."

So "Tup, scrubs?" might be the hallmark of a new millenium Bugs Bunny.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

You Phonia

I know in the past I've recommended cargo pants as a great way to deal with all the electronic gadgets we tend to haul around with us now. The more pockets, the better. But this does not apply to bathing suits. Bathing suits should not have lots of pockets. Maybe none!

On a completely unrelated note, my Treo 600 went for a swim while I was on vacation last week. Smart phone? Ha!

So, of course, this gave me the opportunity to reassess the state of cell phones, PDAs, smart phones, etc. Overall, there are way more all-in-one gadgets out there than there were when I got the Treo two years ago, and many of them seemed very capable.

Of course, the much touted Apple iPhone was the first one to be considered. But there were two drawbacks:
1) AT&T's mediocre service reputation, and
2) Newness. Unlike the tens of thousands who lined up to grab in iPhone the day they came out, I'd prefer to let the technology mature a little, and get the kinks shaken out.

I wound up going with a T-Mobile Wing. I was already a T-Mobile customer, and they are the only ones to offer what I consider the perfect plan: Unlimited data and 0 minutes of phone calls. I'm much more interested in being connected to the internet than in actually talking to anyone. (See the title of this blog.) And when I do want to make a call, I don't mind paying the 20 cents a minute or whatever it is.

Now the Wing itself has several pros and cons:

PRO: It's Windows Mobile, so it syncs up very well with standard MS desktop applications like Outlook.

CON: It's Windows Mobile, so it doesn't sync very well with the MacBook Pro I'm now using as my main computer.

PRO: Mark/Space (markspace.com) has Mac software called Missing Sync which can sync with Windows Mobile.

CON: Missing Sync only works with Windows Mobile v5 and earlier. The Wing runs WM6.

PRO: Mark/Space has a new version in beta that will work with WM6.

CON: I have yet to get sync working at all with the Missing Sync beta. It doesn't realize the device is connected.

So, I'm still struggling with this, but I'm optimistic. Sync with my office Windows XP machine has been relatively trouble free. (I tried installing the MS ActiveSync software on WinXP running under Parallels on my Mac, but it failed to install. Maybe I need to break down and upgrade to Parallels 3.0, but I'm peeved at having to shell out another 50 bucks only a couple of months after paying $80 for the previous version.)

Otherwise, this phone/PDA/whatever-they're-called-now device has been wonderful. The Outlook "Today" view, which I always found incredibly annoying on a desktop PC, is actually a pretty handy one-glance summary. And I like the fact that I can deal with actual files, instead of just PalmOS applications.

I still don't have e-mail working quite the way I'd like. I want to read only new, unread messages from both an IMAP server and from GMail, and I'd like to have two delete options: local only, or local plus server. There may be a way to do that. I downloaded the GMail Java applet for reading mail, but it won't run due to a missing certificate. I'll have to look into that further.

But the best part of the Wing is, of course, the cool blue, rubbery finish. It feels really good in your hand. Go play with one at a T-Mobile store.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Possibly final Harry Potter predictions

Sorry. I've been on vacation, the first day of which was spent reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. While I enjoyed the book immensely, the epilogue was strangely unsatisfying. It was at once too much and too little information. I'm sure Rowling will be forced to provide some further clarification as to the fates of our heroes, so I offer what may be my last Harry Potter predictions (but I doubt it).

  1. Harry and his friends will start receiving petronus spam. Silvery glowing animals will appear with messages like "Enlarge your wand" and "Albanian officials will transfer millions to your Gringott's vault."
  2. Having grown up in the muggle world, Harry will finally introduce telephones, e-mail and ball point pens to the wizard world, allowing them to have same-day communication, and to get rid of those stupid quills and parchment, and tying notes to owls' legs.
  3. Why can't these folks hold on to their wands? With something as important as the wand, they seem awfully careless about leaving them lying around, or giving them up to the first expelliarmus that wafts their way. How about sewing miniature wands into their clothing? Or, better yet, surgical implants? Imagine just being able to shoot spells with your fingertip!
  4. Speaking of wands, since when is magic so directional? If your wand aim is a little off, your spell misses its intended victim and lops off someone else's ear? A little too light sabre-y, if you ask me, though I guess it makes for good cinematic effects. How about if someone invents a diffuser that spreads the charm, or a way to have it affect only the target?
  5. Even with the wand waving, Molly Weasley still gets stuck doing the cooking and cleaning for whoever happens to apparate by for dinner. C'mon, J.K. I know most of the magical world is still medieval, but I think we could move a little past this. I think any future HP writings will address this, probably in a very self-conscious way.
Ok, so this is probably not final. I'm sure I'll think of some more. Or maybe I can finally get back to thinking about something more real.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Truth Will Out

This would probably be an excellent time for me to make my final predictions for the outcome of the Harry Potter series, so I won't. For one thing, too much has already been leaked, so any surprisingly accurate predictions I might make would be suspect. More importantly, though, is that my track record in the predictions department is not as good as Sybil Trelawney's when she's not entranced.

What I do find interesting, though, is the role of the Internet, both in helping to build the popularity of the series, and in the recent information leaks that have so ired the publishers and author. I certainly tip my hat to J.K. Rowling. This is a really good series, in terms of creating a story that can captivate so many millions for so many pages without once mentioning Paris Hilton. Her accomplishment as an author is astounding. Who would have thought a decade ago that 10 year olds would be plowing through 800 page novels?

However, I think a lot of the popularity of these books is due to word of e-mouth. Information and recommendations that used to be spread by face-to-face conversations, letters and phone calls now propagate at light speed, reaching millions in seconds. And the ability to discuss something as entertaining as Rowling's books resulting in people at antipodes of the earth feeling they belonged to the same community ... the community of wand-waving witch and wizard wannabees. (Whew!) Obviously, the traditional media (e.g., movies and TV) contributed, but the role of the Internet in popularizing the story can not be ignored.

Likewise, it's the Internet that's lead to the rash of leaks about book 7 of the series. The fact that any blogger or vanity web site owner can flaunt his or her access by posting restricted information is, in itself, the enticement. Why else spoil this long-awaited book release except for the self-glorification of being in the know?

I think the real lesson is that information security on the Internet is a myth. If the information exists, people will find ways to get it.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Another HP7 guess

I've been trying to re-read all the Harry Potter in preparation for the release of number 7, so I'm fresh on the story. I had forgotten that at the end of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry and Dumbledore have a talk about the fact that Harry spared Pettigrew's life, thus allowing him to escape and return to help Voldemort. Dumbledore reassures Harry that the consequences of his charity are unpredictable, but that more than likely, he'll be glad to have Voldemort's servant be in debt to Harry Potter.

This amounts to about a page worth of book, so it's too important to ignore. I'm now calling that in the final showdown between Harry and Voldemort, Pettigrew will either save Harry or kill Voldemort, or both.

Or was this already obvious to everyone?

Tuesday, July 3, 2007


I was stunned to see an area about 10 feet wide and the entire length of the mall cordoned off. Inside, people were lounging about with their lattes, reading magazine or e-mail or both. It took me a minute to realize these people were waiting for the iPhone to go on sale at the Apple Store about 6 hours hence. According to reports, some people camped out days in advance at their nearest Apple or AT&T store.

What is that about? What would be wrong with waiting a day? Or a week? Or a month?

From all reports, the iPhone does an excellent job of helping you use a very slow Internet connection. There's a lot of glitzy technology in there, all crowded behind what looks like a very seductive touch screen. Stroke it the right way, and it'll make the earth move for you. Phone, Web browser, e-mailer, iPod, video/photo player, etc., all packed into one neat little box.

Sounds like a great time-saver for the busy person on the go. Exactly unlike all these folks waiting in line for a day to buy one.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

HP7 guesses

Ok, I haven't read any alleged spoilers. I just thought I'd throw out my own predictions for the final book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. So, here goes:

  1. Harry vanquishes Voldemort. Duh. I don't know if Harry actually winds up killing him, but he certainly eliminates the Voldemort threat for a good long time.
  2. Some else (Ron, Hermione or Ginny) is instrumental at the final moment of Harry's victory over Voldie.
  3. Snape, who is, of course, really a good guy, dies ... Darth Snaper.
  4. Harry becomes the new DADA (Defense Against the Dark Arts) teacher.
  5. McGonagall becomes headmistress. She'll be succeeded by Harry eventually.
  6. Draco Malfoy is redeemed, and rebels against his old man.
  7. Obi Wan Dumbledore will make some kind of appearance from beyond.
  8. The Hogwarts alumni association will hit Harry up for big donations every year.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Human Power!

I live about 8 miles from where I work, and there's simply no good way to drive there. It takes me 35 minutes or more to cover this distance, and it requires a lot of time sitting in traffic, waiting for lights, and being stuck behind lost souls who think that slowing to a crawl will somehow reveal their whereabouts.

So I've been thinking for a while about other means of transportation. I could take a bus, or a bus and subway combination, but that would take an hour and a quarter at best, and longer when the subway train goes missing, as it so often does. This is mainly due to the bus schedule. The trains are usually fast and frequent, but the bus invariably involves a long wait, and a slow ride.

I've started bicycling recently, and I enjoy that tremendously. There are some drawbacks, though. I've never liked riding in traffic, and will go out of my way to avoid it. Luckily, for the cost of a couple of extra miles, I can ride most of the way on bike paths and multi-use paths, with only a short stretch of sharing the road with cars. It makes the trip 10 miles instead of 8, but it's well worth it to me.

The bigger problem is weather. Sure, it's beautiful now, but we've had frequent thunderstorms lately. Worse, these are not predicted in the morning, so I wind up with my bike at the office, trying to think of a way to get it home. Also, in this part of the country, there are inevitably at least 2-3 months of very cold weather, accompanied by snow, ice, freezing rain, and other delights. I don't have a bicycle solution for that. I suppose I'll have to go back to the car for that period, but that will be a real let down after the near complete independence of being able to just hop and my bike and go.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Back from the Curmudgeon's Convention

Ok, it's been a while. Since I last posted, I suffered a disk head crash on my main PC. I was awakened to the shortcomings of my back-up strategy (i.e., "Do it later"), and I replaced that PC with a beautiful new (and now obsolete) MacBook Pro. I still run Windows XP/Pro under Parallels, but I'm trying to switch to native Mac software as much as possible. (Interestingly, Parallels/Windows XP allowed me to access a scanner that was not accessible from the Mac directly.)

Meanwhile, recovering the data from my late, lamented drive cost as much as the MacBook. So now I've revised my back-up strategy (i.e., "Do it sooner"), and will be trying one of the on-line backup services. More on that sooner or later.

The MacBook is indeed a thing of beauty, but I miss some of the keyboard shortcuts I was used to on Windows. Since a mouse was always optional on Windows, it's always been possible to completely drive the system just from the keyboard. Not so on the Mac. While many of the same shortcuts are there, and even with appropriately similar key combinations, there are a frustratingly large number that are simply missing.

Anyway, as cheered as I am by the switch to the Mac side, there's still plenty to be curmudgeonly about. Stay tuned.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Machine Morality

In a science fiction story called Runaround (1942), Isaac Asimov introduced his three laws of robotics. These would be built into every (fictitious) robot, and were intended to make them safe and productive for use by humans. In essence, these constituted a kind of machine morality.

Roughly stated, these laws, in order of priority, say a robot must:

1. Protect humans
2. Obey orders, except when that conflicts with first law
3. Protect itself, except when that conflicts with first or second laws

Sixty-five years later, we still only have robots to vacuum floors and mow lawns. However, we have a plethora of other electronic devices that ring, flash, chirp, vibrate and talk to get our attention. These intrude ever more aggressively into our lives.

So it's time for additional, more sophisticated rules. My proposals are that machines must:

4. Behave as reasonably expected
5. Encourage correct use (and discourage incorrect use)
6. Avoid unnecessary side-effects
7. Avoid unnecessary resource requirements
8. Work under all the circumstances in which they're intended to be used
9. Be fun to use

These are, of course, obvious to anyone who's ever studied human factors, usability or product design in general. Sadly, however, these laws are seldom followed in practice. So perhaps by listing the laws and corollaries, we can make a kind of checklist for product designers.


Thursday, March 1, 2007

Why I Don't Post More Often

I'm busy.

But seriously, I have a bunch of ideas, but I like to let them ripen before putting them out here.  I'll get back to something soon.

Friday, February 23, 2007

What's Uploading, Doc?

So now it's out of the bag. Google is actually going to charge money for software. Its collections of office tools will put it in competition with Microsoft Office, a huge cash cow for Microsoft. These tools include documents, spreadsheets, e-mail, calendars, etc.

The Google differentiator is that these will be Web-based. You no longer have to worry about which version of your document is on which machine, or how you will access one spreadsheet from anther computer. Everything will reside with Google. Moreover, you can identify others who will be able to access the same documents, spreadsheets, etc., so everyone can collaborate.

Of course, the question on everyone's lips is "How will they fare against Microsoft.?" Some think the Web functionality will be enough of a draw to lure customers away from MS. Others argue that Microsoft has the brand that conveys reliability. (Actually, reliability is not what most people think of when they think of Microsoft.)

Moreover, Google's got pretty impressive brand recognition itself. In fact, in light of this week's product announcements, last year's purchase of YouTube.com makes more sense. Why would a company spend over $1.5 billion on a bunch of home movies? Because they can!

Thursday, February 8, 2007

New Vistas

Microsoft has committed the blunder of the century. By introducing Vista, a supposedly revolutionary version of Windows, they are essentially inviting their customer base to consider upgrading both operating system and hardware.

And once you consider upgrading operating system and hardware, you might as well consider a Macintosh! After all, the Macs not only have the reputation for reliability and ease of use that Windows is striving for, but they can now run Windows! So you don't even have to change all your software at once.

Apple has, of course, wasted no time in playing this up in their marketing campaign, inviting PC users to upgrade to a Mac. It certainly sounds tempting.

Follow-up to "Space Case"

As a quick follow-up to my Tuesday note, Astronaut Lisa Nowak is now charged with attempted murder, not merely attempted kidnapping. NASA may finally consider doing periodic mental health evaluations for its team of astronauts. Geez, it's about time. Did they think the term "space cadet" was a compliment?

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Space Case

I'm a child of the space age. I had picture books about the as-yet-unrealized hope of landing on the moon. I had records (yes, records) of songs about outer space. We left elementary school classes to go down to the gym to crowd around a small black and white TV, watching the historic flights of Alan Shepherd and John Glenn. And I was a young teenager when men did finally walk on the moon, marring it forever with footprints and litter.

I always knew that the space program, and the moon landing in particular, were phenomenal accomplishments of engineering and technology. Humankind always needs heroes, so we saluted the brave astronauts who flew these historic missions, but the real work was done by the engineers. The astronauts could, and sometimes did, fill the jobs that could have been performed by a dog or a chimp. Of course, having humans enabled us to learn much more on these flights, and to salvage missions that would otherwise have gone awry, but the actual accomplishment of space travel was an engineering feat. This is why Tom Wolfe's book, The Right Stuff, and the later movie, were so misguided. They depicted the engineers as a bunch of buffoons who needed the astronauts to set things straight. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Nevertheless, the astronauts were unquestionably heroic. They were certainly courageous and valiant. They underwent arduous and grueling training. They confronted unknown obstacles. And when problems arose, they proved themselves resourceful, energetic and fearless. In fact (and in fiction), they were the ultimate role models ... cleaner then boy scouts, hardier than baseball players, and more wholesome and American than a Norman Rockwell painting.

And that is why the news of an astronaut's being arrested for attempted kidnapping is such a blow. This former shuttle crew member was involved in a tawdry love triangle which included a shuttle pilot from another mission. She drove 900 miles, donned a disguise, and attempted to abduct her love rival in a parking lot.

I'm not sure which is more shocking ... how the entire profession of "astronaut" and the values linked to the space age are now horribly debased, or that some TV writer didn't come up with this first! Well, they will now.

Monday, February 5, 2007

The Geeks vs. the Heads

Some people may care about the Colts' upset victory over the Bears in yesterday's superbowl, but most people between the ages of 20 and 70 know the really big story is the victory of the Geeks over the Heads. In more modern lingo, it's the triumph of Apple Inc. (formerly Apple Computer) over Apple Corps, the Beatles' business entity. The computer wonks have won out over the greatest pop band of all time.

For decades, the two Apples have been duking it out over the use of the name, and of the eponymous fruit depicted in their logos. Initially, the music business and the computer business were so widely divergent that no one would ever have mistaken one trademark for the other. In recent years, though, Apple's (the computer one) ventures into the iPod and iTunes have put it squarely in the path of Apple (the Beatles' one). Yet another lawsuit was pending when the current deal was announced. Basically, the computer company now owns the Apple trademark, and will license it back to the Beatles' music company for some uses.

This is the triumph of medium over message. The company that controls the technology dominates over the company that creates the actual content. The Beatles and Apple Corps have been making money hand over fist since the 1960's, but the (1970's vintage) computer company is the real powerhouse. In some sense, it was ever thus. The fortunes of all the big recording artists have been dwarfed by those of their managers and record labels. But somehow, this Apple v. Apple resolution seems to bring this ironic disparity into sharper focus. These were two giants, in some sense each the pinnacle of its field: groundbreaking counter-culture music vs. technology.

The silver lining that everyone's hoping for is that maybe the Beatles' recordings will finally be available through iTunes. Neither Apple is commenting on that, but hey, at least it's not Microsoft!

Friday, February 2, 2007

Real World Spam

There are as many opinions about the recent Boston bomb scare/ad campaign as there are blogs on the Web (4.3 gazillion, at last count). Some claim the Boston authorities overreacted, and some say it was necessary. Some say the two men who planted the devices were reckless and irresponsible, and others that they were hapless pawns of big money advertisers like Turner Broadcasting.

The fact that seems to be overlooked is that this is an incident of real world (i.e., non-e-mail) spam. Yes, spam, pure and simple. This is advertising that's meant to circumvent the normal channels in order to get in your face. Technology watchers often talk about disruptive technology ... technology that changes the way lives and business are conducted in significant ways. The TBS Adult Swim ads are an example of disruptive advertising. It works precisely because it defies your expectations about where advertising should be and how it should reach you. The bomb scare was the best publicity Turner could have wished for.

In fact, the advertising is scarier than the bomb threat! Actual bombs would have been either the result of a few deranged individuals (Think Timothy McVeigh, Eric Rudolph or Theodore Ka... uh, the Unabomber), or the work of a determined subversive organization like al Qaeda or the Aum Shinri Kyo cult. Subversive advertising, on the other hand, is the product of our own culture and economy. It is the inevitable outcome of our technology and economic system.

As technology advances, we are confronted with more and more media outlets. Only 60 years ago, there were newspapers, magazines and radio. Now there's television, the Internet, downloadable software and content, and a host of other ways for messages to reach us. Not only does the technology give us ways to filter out advertising (pop-up blockers, fast forwarding on VCRs and DVD players, etc.), but we ourselves become numb to the ever-present advertising that confronts us. We learn to ignore it. How many people actually look at the ads on their Google search pages? (Please look at the ads on this blog!)

So, like an organism adapting to a changing environment, advertising itself has to become at once more intrusive and more tightly integrated with content. Product placement in movies and TV shows is everywhere. People drive cars and wear clothing festooned with billboard-style ads. Busses and taxis carry animated displays. Public buildings and sports venues are named after sponsors. And, of course, FAX and e-mail spam are out of control

This kind of unrelenting, in-your-face advertising is much like the tobacco companies' increasing nicotine levels in cigarettes in order to hook more smokers faster. This is strictly a corporate survival tactic.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007


I make check lists. That way, I can check the list, and check off things that are no longer needed. Builders, I've noticed make punch lists. These are like check lists, but more emphatic. I guess this is because builders are manly men who would never merely check something when they have the option of punching it.

So really tough guys make bullet lists. These are even stronger than punch lists. Each item in a bullet list carries the threat of death if it is not fulfilled.

HTML users have two choices: ordered lists (delimited by <ol>...</ol>), and unordered lists (couched in <ul>...</ul>). I'm not sure if unordered lists are anything like disordered lists. If so, they would be pretty similar to my check lists.

A check list is not a list in HTML, though. You can have a check box, but it is independent of any list membership. In fact, it's independent of anything at all. You can simply have an unlabeled check box all by itself on an HTML page. Here's one now:

So you can check things off without first checking the list. This is the kind of list I really need ... just a set of boxes that I can check off for any reason at all. I'll have to make myself a list like this sometime.

I'll put it on my "to do" list.

Friday, January 5, 2007


Many people are familiar with the idea of Print on Demand. You know the hype. You walk into your local bookstore, order a copy of any book ever written, and in a few minutes (or hours), pick up your new printed, bound copy. Or you get your morning newspaper(?), filled with just the news you care about, off your printer. This technology is here today, and is starting to gain a foothold.

But really, this is just a special case of Manufacturing on Demand. Printers, binders, etc. are just manufacturing machines. As other processes become increasingly automated, and as that automation technology drops in price, there's no reason why there can't be distributed manufacturing everywhere. Why not show up at a car dealer and have the exact car you want built for you that day? Or choose your own cell phone features and gizmos and walk away with that exact phone? When you go on vacation, instead of packing, just have your hotel room closet stocked with all the clothes you'll need, made to your exact specifications.

To some extent, this is available in certain fields today. You can configure and order a PC on-line and pick it up at a retail store that day. And of course, you can get your coffee or food made to order.

Shipping parts and materials around is typically a lot cheaper than shipping finished manufactured goods. Retailers don't have to worry about which items to keep in inventory if all are made from the same set of parts. You can even design your own cell phones, laptops, etc. and have them assembled for you.

This was even embodied in the software development movement towards object-oriented programming. Once robust object classes had been designed and developed, software for all sorts of applications could be assembled from these parts.

At least, that was the theory.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

No Such Thing As Too Many Pockets

For years, I carried house/misc. keys in my front left pants pocket, car keys in the back left, change in the back right and wallet in the front right. As long as all my pants had at least those four pockets, I was all set.

Then came the portable appliances. For a while, I was carrying both a cell phone and a PDA. This necessitated two additional pockets, or one of those lame-looking belt holsters. I finally got a Treo, which serves as both phone and PDA, reducing my pocket requirements to five. Being an avid photographer (and stereo photographer, remember?), I find the Treo camera totally inadequate. So a small camera brings the requisite number of pockets back up to six.

There are cargo pants to meet these needs, and more, but I haven't yet seen them in dress versions, with pinstripes, etc. Even cargo jeans are hard to find if you don't want to look like those wacky carpenters from Green Acres. Even casual cargo pants don't seem to come in enough colors to get through the week. Remember when pants used to be blue, brown, black, tan or gray? Now they're heather, sage, rust, stone and pumpkin. Ugh!

So what to do? Male handbags have never made the cut, though a few resistance fighters still carry backpack like things or, more daringly, shoulder bags. Photographer's vests look totally dorky unless you're a photographer. Come to think of it, even if you're a photographer. Ok, especially if you're a photographer.

Belt holsters are ok ... if you don't mind Commissioner Gordon flashing the Bat-signal at you. Ordinary backpacks, particularly well-travelled ones, might be the best bet, but they have a habit of not staying with you. I want to wear all my essentials so I have no chance of leaving something vital behind.

I think it's time to bring back the Captain Kangaroo look!

Monday, January 1, 2007

The Camera Never Lies?

It's a well-known falsism that the camera never lies. Trick photography has been around about as long as photography itself, and newer technology keeps making it easier to manipulate photographic images. Now HP has a camera that makes people look slimmer in photographs.

This strikes me as so typically American. Instead of actually getting people to be slimmer, let's just make everyone look slimmer in photos. Then we can post these photos on the Web, so thousands of people we've never met will see us as svelt and fit. It's one more step towards isolating people from reality. The fact that the current crop of TV game shows are called reality shows is even more revealing of how unacquainted with reality we really are. We don't recognize reality when we see it, or miss it when we don't.